Head coach: Albert Cager, first year
2016-17 record: 2-8, 7-20 overall; no playoffs
Key players graduated: Savannah Kendall, Avery Oonk
Key returning players: JaShell Evans, Madison Davis, Taylor Medrick, Hannah Heath, Angel Dube, Marianna Bert, Hannah Howell
Key Newcomers: Skyla Mackey, Taija Pritchett
First game: Friday, Nov. 10, at Greenville
First district game: Friday, Jan. 5, versus Princeton
ANNA — Albert Cager was named head coach of the Lady Coyotes last spring after a season as assistant coach with Anna’s district-champion boys’ squad. From his post with the Coyotes, he observed at times the struggles the girls’ team faced.
“It was a perfect storm of things that went wrong,” he said, “starting off with Avalon (Henderson) transferring right before the season started. Anytime you lose a player of that caliber, who’s really the focal point of your offense, it’s not only just a playing thing, it’s a morale thing. Then having Hannah Heath go down early (with a knee injury) — I think they were playing, I want to say, six freshmen at one time on varsity.”
But, he added, “What that does is give us a little bit more experience moving on to this year.” Returning sophomores who saw playing time last season include forwards Lexi Stewart and Shataelyn King and guards Shelby Dombrowski and Kaycee Redwine. “They’ve all taken a step in the right direction,” Cager said. “I’m expecting some big things for them this year.”
Returning veterans who should see big playing time include senior guard Heath, senior All-District forward JaShell Evans, sophomore All-District guard Marianna Bert, senior forward Taylor Medrick, junior forward Hannah Howell and junior guard Angel Dube.
A fine addition to the Lady Coyotes this season is junior guard Skyla Mackey, who transferred to Anna from Melissa in June. Mackey saw loads of minutes last season for the Lady Cards and Cager isn’t overstating when he calls her “a very, very talented player.” Also, senior forward Taija Pritchett, who hasn’t played since her freshman year, is back for the Lady Coyotes.
Graduated now are All-Defensive Team forward Avery Oonk and forward Savannah Kendall.
“One of the things that should really help us out this year is our guard play,” Cager said. “We have about five or six girls that I feel very, very comfortable with handling the ball. Some of them are very versatile — they can shoot it, they can handle it.”
Cager said Anna’s offense will change, from lots of inside-out offensive sets designed for dominant post play, to more dribble penetration with guards creating chances for the “bigs.” “We’re going to have a lot of movement in our offense. The girls are used to pass-and-go-this-way or pass-and-go-that-way. Our offense is pass-cut-fill, there’s no secret about it. So there’s going to be a lot of motion, understanding where I need to be and what I need to be in certain areas. … We don’t want them to be robots. We want them to play free and we want them to play loose.”
Cager said his team will get up and down offensively while also dishing an aggressive brand of defense — an entertaining style that he believes will attract fans. “When you put all those types of things together, the energy that provides … it creates an atmosphere where people want to see basketball. Once they want to see basketball, once we win a couple of games, I think it’s going to be like a wave.”
What about changing the Lady Coyotes’ mindset after last season? “It’s a process,” Cager said. “And it’s not something that’s going to be done overnight. Luckily for me, I got this job in April so I got a chance to spend some time with the girls over the spring and summer. It’s something that we work on every single day. … Every year, we’ll get more and more girls ‘bought-in.’”
Asked his take on the district race, Cager said, “Coming from the position we’re coming from, we have to look out for everyone. Melissa is the reigning champ but they lost some seniors, they lost Skyla, so it’s going to be a little different for that team. Celina, they lost a really good guard. Aubrey has some very young, talented people. Princeton’s system is set. … Not to discredit anyone, but we can’t worry about what other people do right now. We have to understand what we’re trying to do.”
Cager will look to his seniors to steer Anna back toward success. Seniors, he said, must provide leadership and exhibit proper work ethic. “They have to set the tone. If you have lazy seniors, you’ll have lazy freshmen. If you have real hard-working seniors, that’s going to trickle down into your freshmen. … Seniors have to be positive and they have to be willing to be coached themselves. They have to understand that when they mess up I’ll get on to them a little bit harder than I get on to the other girls.”
High on the minds of these Lady Coyotes is a 51-point loss to Melissa in last season’s final district game. “I remind them every day,” Cager said. “To get beat the last game of the season by your biggest rival by 51 points, it should leave a sour taste in your mouth. We don’t ever want that to happen again. … We’re not saying that we’re going to beat them every time, because they have a really good program, but for them to beat us by 51 on their Senior Night was embarrassing and totally unacceptable.”
(Translation: Mark your calendars now, folks — Jan. 19 at Melissa.)
Cager appears enthusiastic at every turn. “This is the best time of the year for me,” he said. “A lot of people have all these different hobbies. Basketball is my hobby. Basketball is what I do when I go home. I’m watching TV, rewinding film, watching videos. I’m consistently doing something, even if it’s not per se about my team. … And I love basketball practice. This is what gives me life.”
Cager saidfor the opener at Greenville on Nov. 10 he’ll be like “a kid on Christmas morning,” adding, “I’m going to be nervous up until the moment I see that ball go up. Once I see the ball go up, it goes to instincts. We’ve just got to go with the flow. I think our girls will be well-prepared. It’s a very exciting time to start a new foundation in Anna basketball.”