RED SPRINGS — The Red Springs girls basketball team will have a new look this season with some key pieces missing from last year’s Three Rivers Conference championship squad.
Coming off a 21-6 record, including the first conference tournament title since the 2007-08 season, the Lady Red Devils still enter the year as one of the favorites to win the league.
Despite some changes to the roster, Red Springs coach Steve Sinclair knows there’s a target on his team’s back.
“The conversations that we had about East Columbus in the past are the conversations that everybody is having about us now,” Sinclair said. “Everybody knows we lost people, so they’re coming in expecting to beat you. We can’t come in slacking.”
What the Lady Devils do have is Taya Jones, an all-conference, all-district and all-county performer. After averaging 17.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 steals during her junior campaign, Jones enters the season as one of the top candidates to claim player of the year honors.
“People look up to me,” said Jones, who scored 24 points in the TRC tournament title game last season.
“They expect me to handle the ball and make good decisions. It lets me know that I’m a leader.”
Jones said she “needs more steals” this season to help fill the void left by Sha’nia Leach, the county’s defensive player of the year last year. As the team’s facilitator and top defender, Leach notched 10-plus steals on three occasions and started Red Springs’ fast break.
“People have to step up and fill in those spots that we had last year,” Jones said. “I really want (a championship).”
Sinclair said he’s still trying to piece together his latest squad.
“It’s kind of like re-identifying yourself. Even when you return a lot of people, you still have to figure out how this group is going to play,” he said.
“It’s been a little rough to begin with, but one thing that doesn’t change from year to year is how hard you work. Everything else we can figure out along the way. Basketball is a long season.”
But the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for the Lady Devils. All-county performer Taylnn Atkinson returns as the team’s main post presence. During her sophomore campaign, Atkinson averaged 7.5 points and pulled down 6.2 rebounds per game.
Sophomore Katelyn Culbreth will also play a key role for Red Springs on the interior, with senior Tariah Ferguson returning from an injury to aid Jones at the guard spot.
“To help Taya out, I think offensively we’re really going to rely on Taylynn,” Sinclair said. “We’re looking for big things from her, as well as Katelyn Culbreth. Another bright spot that we have is Tariah, who has been with Taya the whole time. But she had to miss the last two years because of injuries. She’s finally back healthy, so we’re looking for her to knock down some shots for us as well.”
Sinclair is hopeful that his team will continue to maintain an edge that helped it reached the pinnacle last season.
“We have to make sure from the first game that we’re working hard and getting after people,” he said.
Experienced Red Devils enter year with high hopes
Red Springs coach Glenn Patterson isn’t shying away from the lofty goals he’s established for the Red Devils this season.
The confidence comes from having the the senior-guard tandem of Caleel Mitchell and Monte’ Wilkerson. It’s a duo that’s capable of matching any backcourt in the Three Rivers Conference.
“We have high expectations for this year,” Patterson said. “I think it’s up to them. The sky’s the limit. They’ve been here four years. They’ve played against the best of the best in their early years. I try to tell them this is their year. If you look throughout the conference, there’s not a player that’s been on a team longer than these two.
“I challenge them. I get on Monte’ all the time to be the spark to get us going. I think they’re up for the challenge.”
Coming off a 13-12 season, including a 9-5 mark in TRC play, Patterson’s veteran group is led by the all-conference senior guards. Sophomore Brandon Cummings is the lone underclassman on the roster.
One of the best 3-point shooters in the region, Mitchell made teams pay with his shot-making ability and hopes to “be more patient” this season on the offensive end.
“You have to work harder than you did the last three years,” Mitchell said. “I can’t be forcing stuff.”
Wilkerson is the team’s primary facilitator. He has an arsenal of good shooters and athletic bigs at his disposal and is capable of finding his own offense as a shooter and driver.
After playing football for the first time in his prep career, Wilkerson expects to bring a different attitude on the court this season.
“As seniors, it’s our last ride so we have to make the best of it,” Wilkerson said. “Playing football made me more aggressive. I have to play every game like it’s our last and keep it in control.”
Seniors Eriq McBryde and Jerome Bass will ancor the Red Devils’ frontcourt. Despite a lack of size, Patterson expects both players to hold their own on the interior when it comes to rebounding.
“Jerome and Eriq. … I tell them that we are 5-foot-10 across the board as guards, with them being 6-foot and 6-foot-2. We have to come out and do the small things,” Patterson said. “We’re not big, but we’ve been focusing on boxing out. The talent is there. We have shooters, we have the speed and we have penetrators.”
Senior Nichorie West will provide depth at the guard spot, along with Jaylen Mack — who handled point-guard duties during Wilkerson’s absence in the preseason — and Jerry McDowell.
“We’re small in size, but we’re quick,” Patterson said. “All of those guys are going to have to continue to grow. I think we’re a little deeper than we’ve been the past few years.”
With quality depth and experience on its roster, Red Springs appears poised for a breakout season.
Patterson said the team’s ability to give its all in every game will go a long way in determining which team rises to the top of the league standings.
“I’m expecting great things, but of course we’re in a tough conference,” he said. “If you take a break, I think from top to bottom the conference is tough. I think the experience we have gives us that edge.
“This is the year. We have to play every night for 32 minutes, not taking plays off.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at [email protected] and 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.