ROGERSVILLE – With Cherokee’s 43-40 loss at Sevier County in the Region 1-AAA basketball tournament Feb. 22, it marked not only the end of the Lady Chiefs’ season, but the end of an era, as well.
Four years earlier, Sevier County had ended the Lady Chiefs’ 5-24 season in the District 2-AAA tournament at Morristown East, 59-32, as Harper Russell, Kennedy Cowan and Karah Alvis completed their freshmen season.
Jason Lawson, who had taken the head coaching position a year earlier after Cherokee had notched a 1-30 campaign in 2013-14, assured his team would get back to the gym and work.
They did, reaching double-digits in wins and the regional tournament three straight years for the first time in school history, as his young squad grew up into a formidable basketball team, finishing last year 18-14.
Lawson now faces the 2019-20 season with the loss to graduation of six major contributors: Harper Russell, Mataylin Goins, Kennedy Cowan, Karah Alvis, Lauren Smith and Hannah Collins, bringing back memories of the lean years when Lawson first decided to take on the challenge.
“It is similar, but we are in a little better shape,” Lawson said. “We have a little better foundation. Of course, we’ve only got one senior, Anna Herrell, and three juniors.
“So, we’ve got a little bit better foundation as far as where we’re starting from. We’ve got some stuff to work with, some stuff to build on. This freshman class that came in are really athletic, which gives us a big boost,” Lawson said.
Lawson is counting on the few experienced players he has to lead the way.
“The upper class is going to have to shoulder the load,” he said. “They’ve been there. They know kinda what it’s about. We don’t have a whole lot of experience. A lot of them have faced a lot of injuries and adversities early on.
“Even though we’ve got four upperclassmen, only two of them have really seen any significant varsity minutes. So, it’s going to be a big change of pace,” Lawson said.
Junior guard Kaylan Henard will help run the offense.
“She came in last year and played the guard. She’s really worked hard on her game,” Lawson said.
A newcomer will help Henard get the ball up the floor.
“A freshman, Macy McDavid, is coming in. She’s a really good ball handler. She’s worked really hard at her ball game. She’s very athletic. We’re looking for good things out of her,” Lawson said.
“We’re going to do things a little differently this year where we operate with more than one point guard in the game at the same time. That way it gives us a little more flexibility to get in our sets and stuff. Hopefully, we can utilize some athletic ability that we’ve got,” Lawson said.
Sophomore Samantha Tilson and junior Destiny Jarnigan head up Cherokee’s front court.
“Sam is going to be anchoring down the post with DJ,” Lawson said. “Carter Ringley (a sophomore) is going to have to step in and hopefully use her size and her length to her advantage down low.
“Lydia Alvis and Anna Herrell are both coming back,” Lawson said of his experienced post players. ”Early on last year Lydia was hurt. She didn’t get back until about January. She struggled trying to get in the groove. She’s worked really hard and has really improved.
“Anna is our only senior. She’s going to be looked at for her leadership. Hopefully, she’ll step up and take that on,” he said.
Lawson’s depth is comprised of a lot of youngsters, including sophomore Arran Harrell and two freshmen, Kodi Henson and Kyla Howe.
“Gema Brooks, a sophomore, has worked really hard in the offseason,” Lawson said. “She’s a little fireball. She’ll play two-guard. She’ll help defensively. Hopefully she’ll be able to step in and plug some gaps we’re missing defensively.”
What the Lady Chiefs lack in experience will have to be balanced by physical ability.
“We are athletic,” Lawson said. “We’re always going to try to play man-to-man, but we’re going to have to switch it up and change the pace. We can’t just sit in one thing all the time or it’ll eat us alive.
“So, we’re going to switch it up. We don’t want to get in foul trouble. We want to try to maximize what we can do, keeping our girls on the floor, so we’ll definitely be changing it up a little bit,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of size, but we’re all about the same size, so that makes it unique in some aspects. We’re going to have to rely on some speed and quickness to make up for what we don’t have in height,” Lawson said.
Cherokee had summer workouts at North Greene and Morristown West.
“All that did was get us some playing time,” Lawson said. “In the summer we had so many new faces, it’s hard to really get a whole lot in. But we were able to get a pretty decent assessment athletically on what the girls were doing and hopefully give them some things to work on.
“They’ve been working on it. Now we’re just trying to refine it and get it where it’s supposed to be,” said Lawson, who said the teams to beat in the Big 7 will be Science Hill, Daniel Boone and Dobyns-Bennett. “Science Hill is going to be lights out,” Lawson said. “Boone and D-B will be fighting it out. And then you’ve probably got Crockett, Volunteer and Tennessee High.”
“Hopefully, we can put all the pieces of the puzzle together and get something rolling,” said Lawson, who admitted this year’s team is comprised of “a lot of youth, a lot of inexperience. So, we’re starting over.
“But we’ve got a lot of energy,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to learn. Hopefully, we can work the kinks out early and be competitive when we hit January and February.”