After a two-year absence, the Anna Coyotes are looking to return to post-season play with solid group of seasoned seniors and some talented underclassmen who are used to winning.
Fourth-year Anna head coach Kyle Phifer fielded young starters each of the past two campaigns and the road got plenty tough at times. But last season the Coyotes came close to reaching the playoffs, finishing one game back of fourth-place Sanger with a 3-7 district mark, 15-16 overall.
“One of the things that stood out for me [last season] was the resiliency of the guys,” Phifer said recently at Anna High School. “We were in it to the very end. And those guys dealt with a lot as far as injuries and it seemed like we always had something going on. They were able to mentally stay with it and continue to put us in that position.
“I think they understand that we kind of let an opportunity get away last year. I think it’s made them hungry, kind of added a chip to their shoulder.”
The Coyotes return everyone except for All-District guard Micah Cotton, the team’s leading scorer last year and a top defender. Back are veteran seniors David “Bullet” Geer, Jayden Rodgers, Jackson Vandagriff and Jaedin Victorian – the first three of whom have played varsity ball since they were sophomores.
Geer has earned Second-Team All-District recognition and a district Honorable Mention nod these last two years as a starting point guard. Rodgers, Victorian and Vandagriff are all forwards, with Vandagriff having earned an Honorable Mention pick last season.
“They went from five wins to 15 [last season] and you can tell they want to take that next step,” Phifer said his seniors. “They’re really focused on the things needed to be that next team.”
Key returning juniors include All-District Honorable Mention forward Jaden Adams, guard Josiah Mackey and guard JC Campbell. Adams began last season on varsity and was starting soon after Christmas. Phifer noted that Adams had probably the best summer of all the Coyotes.
Mackey and Campbell moved up from JV to varsity in the middle of last season. “Anytime you do that it’s extremely tough,” Phifer said. “Josiah had a big game against Sanger and he hit some big shots against Gainesville. Campbell, he’s an energy guy. He’s Micah 2.0.”
These juniors went 26-3 as freshmen on the JV squad and were winning there last year before being called up. Phifer said they’ve matured and grown physically since then. “The juniors are a bunch of kids with 4.0 GPAs, just a group of winners. So when you combine those two groups together – the juniors and seniors – that’s what we’re hoping will be a really good group.
“Anything less than the playoffs right now would be a tough pill to swallow.”
In his first season at Anna, 2016-17, Phifer led the Coyotes to their first-ever outright district championship - and first-ever playoff win. This year, he said, depth is back as a team strength. “I think we have a lot of kids that can play. We have a lot of guys that understand how to play, a lot of guys that are extremely skilled because they put a lot of time into the gym.”
As for potential challenges, Phifer pointed to defense. “We have to understand that your offense is going to have off games but the defense has to bring it every single night.”
Regarding offense, Phifer said, “I think we’re going to be able to spread people out with our shooting. We have four to five guys that are 35-percent or higher 3-point shooters. That’s obviously an advantage. And I think we have some quick guards that can attack gaps. … I would say spacing and shooting would be the keys.”
Defensively, Anna ran plenty of man-to-man last year and Phifer said to expect more of that. “I just think we really have the type of kids that can really get up in you and pressure you and make you uncomfortable. And I think we can take people out of what they like to do with that pressure.”
In the backcourt, whatever Geer, Mackey and Campbell lack in size they make up for in skill, Phifer said. “They’ve gotten more athletic. They’ve bought in to the weight room. And they know how to play.”
As for the senior Geer, Phifer said, “He’s incredibly intelligent. He shoots it really well and he’s very quick. Anytime he shoots it from deep range … it really puts the defense in a bind because he’s fast enough to get around you as well. But I would say his understanding of the game is the No. 1 thing. He plays with a poise. He doesn’t get speeded up. And he knows exactly what we need to be in when the other team gives us a defense.”
Closer to the bucket, Vandagriff, Rodgers, Victorian and Adams are ready to produce again.
“Vandagriff is going to be an inside-out guy,” Phifer said. “He shoots it really well. I think he’s a guy who could shoot over 40-percent from 3. He’s also really added to his game as far as attacking.
“Victorian is going to bring us some toughness. He’s a battler. He’s gotten more skilled, though. His feet have gotten better as far as playing under control and finishing.”
Rodgers moves from power forward to small forward where Phifer said he’ll likely create more opportunities. “He is the type of guy that can affect the game in different ways. Our team feeds off of his toughness.”
Newcomer Kadrian Evans, a move-in from Plano, should also contribute inside. “He’s a 4-slash-5 type kid [power forward/center],” Phifer said. “He’s had a really good fall for us. He’s still picking up a lot of stuff.”
Phifer said District 11-4A is once again loaded with talent - and leadership. “Every game, you’re playing against somebody who could beat you. There’s a lot of good coaches in here.” Besides Eric Benton at Melissa, Bobby Stastny at Celina and Kyle Smith at Aubrey, Phifer singled out Sanger’s new head coach, Brandon DeLorge, who took Sulphur Springs to the 5A state tournament last season.
The Coyotes’ season gets underway Nov. 16 at Dallas Carter and they open district play on Jan. 17, at home versus Melissa.