The Lady Indians won their first Class AAAAA state championship, finished the season undefeated at 33-0 and was voted the No. 2-ranked team in the nation according by ESPN.
Needless to say, it will be difficult to match those results this season after losing four key seniors — starters Dominique Wilson, Pachiyaanna Roberts and Destinie Gibbs, and reserve Kayla Montgomery — to the college ranks.
But McEachern coach Phyllis Arthur believes this year’s unit is still talented enough to make a deep postseason run and win its third region championship in four years.
“Those girls had tenacity and a will to win,” Arthur said. “They had been starters for a couple of years and had the right attitude to go out there and fight for everything.
“This year’s team is less experienced than last year’s. They still have a will to win, but it will take time for their experience level to match that will.”
Before this season could even start, McEachern was dealt a blow to repeating its state title hopes.
Senior forward Joclyn Ramos, another key contributor from last year’s squad and a projected starter this season, tore her ACL in July and had surgery in August. She could, however, be back by the end of January.
“We were counting on having Joclyn back to help out in the post, but with her injury occurring before the preseason, we’ve been able to make a few more adjustments sooner to get ready,” Arthur said.
Unlike last year’s McEachern team, which featured the 6-foot-4 Montgomery, 5-8 Wilson, 5-9 Gibbs and 5-11 Roberts, the 2012-13 roster is loaded with guards and doesn’t have a single player 6 feet or taller.
Arthur’s focus during the preseason has been getting her team up and down the floor to exploit the Lady Indians’ speed advantage and work and up-tempo style.
“We’re going to be smaller, but we’re going to try and use our quickness to our advantage,” Arthur said. “We’ll be at a disadvantage with certain matchups, but our goal is to run teams all season and try to keep those big players off the court since they don’t get up and down as well.
“We will be up-tempo and still pressuring teams. Some of our key players that we plan on using for that still need to learn it, so it’s something we’re working on. It’s not as effective yet as we think it will be, but we’ll get there.”
Two returning starting guards, sisters Mia and Te’a Cooper, are expected to lead the young team, which includes four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen. Mia, a senior committed to South Carolina, has lone been a key contributor, while Te’a, who has already committed to North Carolina, was the starting point guard as a freshman last year.
“Te’a and Mia — this is their team,” Arthur said. “I’ve asked them to carry this team on their backs as leaders and contributors on the floor. I think they can do. They have the confidence to get everybody’s attention and get them on the same page every night. We’re really going to need them to take ownership this year.”
Last year’s ownership role belonged to Roberts.
A do-it-all athlete who could play all five positions on the floor and averaged 17.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, four steals and 1.7 blocks per game, Roberts’ versatility and height made her threat all over the court.
“Pachis could play outside and inside,” Arthur said of the player now at Syracuse. “We need to find that player again. Because we’re smaller, we have a lot of guards, so we need to find another post out of what we have.”
Looking for solid contributions from the post will take some time. Meanwhile, freshman newcomers Jada Lewis and Chynna Ewing, and junior Kiera Finley, will be expected to contribute early along with returners Triana Tisdale, Declaria Daniels, Keiwanna Patterson and KlinTisha Martin.
“Jada is a good player and plays in the same style Te’a does,” Arthur said. “She just doesn’t have the confidence yet that Te’a had as a freshman. If we get her to play to her ability, then we’ll be covered at the guard spots with those three.”
Unlike last year’s team, which seemed destined to win the state championship, this year’s Lady Indians will have their work cut out for them if they hope to repeat.
“As long as we stay level-headed, we’re confident we can get back there,” Arthur said. “We have a couple of girls with the right confidence, and some not at that level. We’ll have to play and build to that. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get it later.”