Head coach: Heather Lane, third year
2016-17 record: 10-0, 21-13 overall; district/bi-district champs; lost to Carrollton Ranchview in Area playoff round
Key players graduated: Lauren Brown, Krista Butterfield, Esthy Uyi-Ekhator, Addison Flowers
Key returning players: Taylor Thomas, Taylor Carney, Charley Lane, Natalie Conlin, Sally Clemmons
Key Newcomers: Kayla Riles, Ashley Gideon
First game: Saturday, Nov. 4, at Muenster
First district game: Friday, Jan. 5, at Bonham
MELISSA — Last season was a superb ride for Coach Lane and the Lady Cards, with an undefeated push through district play, a bi-district victory and numerous All-District awards. That team fielded the Offensive Player of Year, a Co-Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Defensive Team selection, three other All-District picks — and the district’s Coaching Staff of the Year.
Topping that campaign will be tough, but Melissa aims to try with a stable of veteran talent. Coach Lane’s goal for this team is 30 wins and a trip to the regional tournament. “We even talk about the state tournament quite a bit,” she said.
Coach Lane bid farewell to four talented seniors after last season: All-District forward Lauren Brown, Defensive Player of the Year guard Krista Butterfield, guard Esthy Uyi-Ekhator and guard Addison Flowers.
“It’s not easy,” Coach Lane said of that team’s win streak. “Winning is hard. There’s so much that goes into it besides the grind of daily practice. … It’s a big deal when you can go undefeated. It was fun to be a part of and watch those kids finally come to a good ending to a three-year period for some of them — and a four-year career for Krista and Lauren. Esthy had a big game when played Celina here and Addison had her moments where she really came in as a role-player and helped us as well.”
“I’m looking forward to playing fast again,” Coach Lane said. “We’re little, so we can’t afford to play in the half-court setting. If we do, we do, and we’ll try to execute our offenses. But we have a tendency to play better when we play fast. … We’re going to have nine on our roster, and I really feel like seven of those players will play a lot. But all of them will have a role and be important.”
Senior guard Taylor Thomas, last season’s Offensive Player of the Year, who’s also verbally committed to play for Texas Women’s University, will again lead the offense. Other projected starters include senior All-District forward Taylor Carney, senior All-District guard Natalie Conlin, junior All-Defensive Team guard Sally Clemmons and junior forward Charley Lane.
Conlin and Thomas are beginning their fourth year on varsity and Carney, her third. “This senior class is strong,” Coach Lane said. “Natalie is a returning starter, Carney is a returning starter and so is Taylor Thomas. Sally and Charley Lane should be able to step in and just help things move along.”
Clemmons, Coach Lane recalls, did an “amazing job” off the bench last season. “She was a little sparkplug — lots of deflections, lots of points. She was probably our best finisher at the basket in transition, and she gave us a lot of energy at the top of our defenses or wherever we placed her.”
Charley Lane and junior guard Anna Fortenberry also play for Melissa’s district-champion volleyball team, a squad that may make a deep post-season run. “I want (Coach) Frank (DePaolo) and the volleyball team to make it as far as possible,” Coach Lane said. “When Charley and Anna are finished, blending them back in to the chemistry and getting back into the grind of basketball will take a little while to set in. In the meantime, we’re going to be a little short-handed.”
Coach Lane said she doesn’t plan to bring anyone else up from JV, but will go with seven players until Fortenberry and Charley Lane return. “We’re going to make the best of it,” she said, “then make a decision before we play Muenster if we sit anyone else on the bench just for insurance in case somebody gets hurt. … But I’m not planning on those older girls coming off the floor very much. They’re going to get, probably, the most minutes this year that they’ve ever gotten.”
New to varsity will be senior guard Kayla Riles, who has battled back for ACL surgery and played on JV last year. Also up from JV is promising forward Ashley Gideon. “She’s going to be impressive as a sophomore,” Coach Lane said. “She’s a big, strong, athletic player and she’ll start at Charley’s spot until Charley is finished with volleyball.”
Fortenberry and junior guard Allie Graham have been coached by Coach Lane since they were sixth-graders. “I’m looking forward to them being able to be a part of varsity and for me to be able to coach them again,” Coach Lane said.
Losing junior guard Skyla Mackey to Anna via transfer, Coach Lane said, was a “hit” to the team. “She would have been a major, major part of what we were doing.”
As for the district race, Coach Lane noted new coaches at Princeton and Bonham. “Anytime there’s a coaching change, that can have a motivational effect on the kids. I’m thinking those new people coming in will get the kids fired up, so we’ve got to pay attention to them. And Princeton has a couple of move-ins that we’re going to have to learn more about. Then Celina is still going to be really good, with a couple of good young freshmen that are probably going to end up on their varsity. … I feel like Celina and Anna will give us a run for our money, and Princeton as well. Aubrey is still going to be good, so it’s going to be a dog fight.”
Coach Lane said she hopes lots of fans return to watch the Lady Cards defend their title, noting that many last season told her how much they enjoyed watching the team’s fast-paced, unselfish brand of play. “It’s not a boring game to watch, so I hope people will continue to be on our bandwagon and come back and watch these kids,” she said. “It’s going to be cool to watch our juniors and seniors blend together and just see what they can do.”