Harker Heights only lost two games in what was a record-breaking season last year.
Rolling through a 29-0 start, the experienced Lady Knights cruised until being slipped up in a second straight regional quarterfinal appearance against Sachse.
But Heights’ (35-2) biggest losses probably came in the offseason with the graduation of three multi-year starters and a potentially season-ending knee injury to star 6-foot-1 post Brianna Freeman.
Despite the setbacks and departures — which included college-bound Eboniey Jeter (North Texas), Shanice Davis (McLennan Community College), and Brianna Golden (Temple Community College) — the Lady Knights’ cupboard is far from bare with defending District 12-5A co-MVP JaQuan "Quanny" Jackson and sophomore Alexus Dukes, last year’s District 12-5A and Daily Herald Newcomer of the Year. They return to a fast, but much smaller Lady Knights squad this year.
But, unlike last year when the Lady Knights appeared to be corner the market on both talent and experience as the area’s top team, there will be a lot more competition for the new District 8-5A crown.
“A coach once told me (about being) at the top like Heights was last year ... ‘You work hard to get there but it sure is hard to stay there,’” Ellison coach Sherry McKinnon said.
“Everybody has a chance. There’s going to be a couple of surprise teams that really bring it (this year), and I’m hopeful we’ll be one of those surprise teams.”
Killeen returns to 5A for the first time since 2001 and brings along one of the area’s most consistent players in Rice-bound senior Jasmine Goodwin. The Lady Roos have claimed at least a share of the district title three of the last four years in 4A but will face heavy competition from Heights, last year’s 12-5A champions, and crosstown Ellison, which won it two years ago.
And don’t sleep on Temple, which returns all five starters, including elite posts KeTara Chapel, who has committed to Mississippi State, and Tyesha Taylor, both of whom sky above 6-feet to make up what should be the area’s tallest squad. Shoemaker, which continually seems to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, is coming into 2012-13 with new life and a new coach in former A&M Consolidated assistant Lori Shead.
“You just have to come in and play hard, be determined to win every game,” McKinnon said, “You don’t want to be in the fourth-place spot because I don’t think there will be a big gap between fourth and first place.”
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Belton Lady Tigers
Last season: 6-26, 2-12 in 12-5A
Outlook: Second-year coach Brenda Gomez knows her team isn’t going to win a lot of games this season. She just wants to be more competitive. That means avoiding 55-point losses like the Lady Tigers had last season to Harker Heights. Players hoping to end that losing culture are the experienced core featuring sophomore Aubrianna Garcia and juniors Emily Hugo, Kesha Butler and Kinsey Williams.
Ellison Lady Eagles
Last year: 24-11, 7-5 in 12-5A, fourth seed, bi-district finalists
Outlook: A year after winning the District 12-5A crown, the Lady Eagles struggled to find an identity without many of the multi-year starters who helped lay the foundation. The end result was a disappointing season that ended abruptly with a bi-district loss to state-ranked buzzsaw DeSoto. But this year brings renewed hope for a bounce-back campaign highlighted by seven returning players, including five seniors. Key among those are dynamic guards Kanesha Saygo and Deja Pointer and 6-foot-2 post Kaitlyn Shearer.
Florence Lady Buffaloes
Last season: 9-20, 1-13 in 27-2A
Outlook: The Lady Buffs struggled in district play last season after a promising start where they went 9-8 before dropping their final 12 games. Coach Drake Stanczak will again rely on low-scoring defensive games to keep the Lady Buffs competitive, hoping to eke out a few wins.
Harker Heights Lady Knights
Last season: 35-2, 11-1 in 12-5A, district champions, regional quarterfinalists
Outlook: Last season was one for the ages, as the Lady Knights won their first 29 games, advancing deep into January before suffering a jarring loss at Temple. But that proved to be just a speed bump, as Heights continued on to win the program’s first district championship. Of course, that was last year, and the Lady Knights must regroup for another run without many of the same faces that helped get them there. That’s why Heights will need key returners JaQuan Jackson and Alexus Dukes to improve in both their play and leadership in a reloading year.
Killeen Lady Roos
Last season: 19-14, 8-2 in 8-4A, district co-champions, bi-district finalists
Outlook: The Lady Roos shared three district championships the last four years, but struggled in early-season matchups against teams from the area, many of the same teams that Killeen now joins in District 8-5A. Led by Rice commit Jasmine Goodwine, the Lady Roos still figure to be competitive in their new 5A district to keep their eight-year playoff run, the longest active streak in Killeen ISD girls basketball, intact. In addition to Goodwine, the District 8-4A offensive MVP in 2012 and a four-year starter at Killeen, the Lady Roos return two all-district players: seniors Esha Atkins and LaDerrica Degrate.
Shoemaker Lady Grey Wolves
Last season: 16-15, 5-9 in 12-5A
Outlook: The Lady Grey Wolves enter a new era with a new head coach and without their standout scoring leader from the last four years. Former A&M Consolidated assistant coach Lori Shead replaces Shauna Showers as the Shoemaker head coach and immediately began rebuilding a team that lost Kiara Rawls. Rawls, who signed with Georgia Southern, was a three-time Daily Herald All-Area selection, a four-time all-district selection and averaged nearly 18 points a game last year. The Lady Grey Wolves also lost rebounding stalwart Hailee Showers, the daughter of the former head coach who moved with her parents to the Aldine area outside of Houston, where her father, James, accepted a football head coach position last spring.
Last season: 28-9, 11-3 in 12-5A, area finalists
Outlook: The only team to beat Harker Heights in the regular season last year, the Tem-Cats are the front-runners to win the District 8-5A championship with seven returners, including five all-district players. Leading Temple is KeTara Chapel and up-and-coming junior post Tyesha Taylor. Chapel was the District 12-5A co-MVP in 2011-12 after averaging 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals a game. The 6-foot-3 Taylor was 12-5A’s defensive player of the year. Senior guards Alyssa Jones and Rykeya Johnson, first-team selections last year, also return as does second-team junior guard Jazzmen Ortiz. The Tem-Cats finished tied with A&M Consolidated in third place and lost to Sachse 47-38 in the second round of the 5A playoffs.
Lampasas Lady Badgers
Last season: 13-17, 5-5 District 25-3A
Outlook: In Jenny Bowden’s first year as head coach, the Lampasas High graduate nearly took the Lady Badgers to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, but Lampasas fell just short of forcing a playoff play-in game after Burnet beat Salado in the season finale. While the experience should help, the loss of five seniors, including four of the team’s top five scorers, leaves a huge void to fill. Offensively, guards Julie Mize and Miranda Maceyra and post Kailey Davis will be expected to increase their production, while Chasity Fields should be the team’s top rebounder and defensive presence in the paint.
Gatesville Lady Hornets
Last season: 19-12, 4-6 in 19-3A, bi-district finalists
Outlook: Gatesville finished in a three-way tie for third place in its district and needed to win a pair of tiebreaker games to earn a playoff berth last season. Things will probably not be any easier this season after head coach Chris Carroll’s team lost four starters. Paige Chambers and Sarah Latham — the only returning players with significant varsity experience — will be counted on heavily to carry the team both on the court and provide leadership, while younger players such as Lexi Hall, Jaiden Johnson, Brianna Poe, Kayla McGiboney, among others, adapt to the level of competition.
Copperas Cove Lady Bulldawgs
Last season: 19-15, 6-8 in 12-5A
Outlook: Copperas Cove lost five of its last six games last season and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season. But with a year of experience under her belt, veteran head coach Teresa Durham hopes to return Copperas Cove to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. She will have to do so with a relatively inexperienced roster, however. The Lady Bulldawgs have four seniors, but only one — Jasmin Johnson — played on varsity last season. Juniors Brittany Gamble, Tatyana Harris and Bryaunea Hall are the most seasoned players on the team, and each played significant roles last season. The Lady Bulldawgs’ biggest obstacle this season could be its lack of height. Only two players stand taller than 5-foot-8, which could pose a problem once district competition rolls around.
Salado Lady Eagles
Last season: 16-13, 7-3 in 25-3A, third seed, regional quarterfinalists
Outlook: Salado dealt with a lot of offseason turnover. Along with learning they’d be returning to the more comfortable 2A, the Lady Eagles also dealt with the departure of their head coach, Jeanette McKinney, and graduation of all-state post players Carling Urben and Kirstie McGillick. Thankfully, there will be some continuity for first-year coach Diane Konarik with the return of two-year letterman Meredith Ward, the team’s only senior, and junior guards Ashley Adams and Taryn Kornegay.
KEYNOTE SPEAKERS (Players to watch)
KeTara Chapel, Sr., P, Temple — The Tem-Cats’ 6-1 senior post averaged 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals a game last season, leading the Tem-Cats to a regular-season upset of Harker Heights and a second-round playoff appearance. Behind Chapel, a Mississippi State commit and reigning district co-MVP, Temple is now the hunted team.
Tyesha Taylor, Jr., P, Temple — The 6-3 post player developed before the eyes of her coach and Temple fans last year to become a dominant force on the blocks and the District 12-5A defensive player of the year as a sophomore. She is already regarded as one of the top girls basketball players for the class of 2014.
Cion Hicks, Sr., P, Shoemaker — Hicks is the only remaining member of the Lady Grey Wolves’ trio that made Shoemaker as competitive as it was last season. The senior, an all-district second-team selection last year, is fielding track and field scholarship offers from a number of high-profile programs from around the country and opted to return to the basketball team for her senior season.
Jasmine Goodwine, Sr., P, Killeen — The Rice commit averaged 18 points, seven rebounds and two steals a game to lead the Lady Roos to their third shared district title in four years last season in 8-4A. She was the district offensive MVP and scored at least 22 points in five of Killeen’s final six district games. The 6-foot-1 post is versatile, capable of playing any position on the floor, and is a matchup problem because of her size, shooting range and ball-handling.
Esha Atkins, Sr., G, Killeen — The 8-4A all-district first-teamer averaged 12 points, four rebounds and two assists a game last season. The multi-sport athlete — she was also a captain on the Lady Roos volleyball team — is a true leader on the floor. Able to take over a game if necessary, Atkins may be the Lady Roos’ best all-around player because of her knack for getting to the rim.
Mikayla Blount, Soph., G, Copperas Cove — She might be a sophomore, but if last season is any indication, Blount could be in for a standout season. As a freshman, the 5-foot-7 guard ranked among the top five on the team in all major statistical categories, averaging a team-high 5.0 rebounds, 4.2 points, 1.5 assists, 1.4 steals and a block per game. With the team undergoing lots of turnover during the offseason, Blount’s stats could increase even more this season.
JaQuan Jackson, Sr., G, Harker Heights — The defending District 12-5A co-MVP, Jackson showed flashes of brilliance in helping lead a relatively senior-laden squad last season to a 35-2 record. Now a senior, Jackson is expected to be the go-to player after averaging 12.2 points, 4.9 steals, 5.9 deflections and 2.9 assists per game last year.
Alexus Dukes, Soph., G, Harker Heights — Just a freshman last season, the District 12-5A newcomer of the year proved her worth among an elder group of Lady Knights, often as the first off the bench. But this year she’ll be expected to run the point full time, which will mean she’ll need to improve on her 4.9 points and 1.8 steals per game average from a year ago.
Kanesha Saygo, Sr., G, Ellison — A late bloomer, Saygo has taken time to allow her game to mature, but after an impressive showing on the AAU circuit this summer, the two-year letterman seems ready to take over leading the Lady Eagles after averaging 7.6 points, 2.7 assists and 2.7 steals last year. Saygo recently committed to play at Texas Woman’s University.
Deja Pointer, Sr., G, Ellison — Sometimes timid and shy off the court, this sharpshooting terror isn’t the least bit scared of draining 3-pointers on the opposition, especially with the game on the line. A three-year letterman, the all-district first-teamer averaged 10.1 points and 5 rebounds per game last year.
Paige Chambers, Sr., G, Gatesville — As the team’s lone returning starter, the Lady Hornets will turn to Chambers to lead in a variety of ways. The senior recorded heavy minutes as a junior and should do so again for a squad that lacks experience all over the floor. With any luck, her defense, determination and rebounding ability will spread across the roster like wildfire, and her leadership will be a tremendous benefit, especially early in the season as the team searches for an identity.
THE DEBATES (Games to watch)
Harker Heights at Killeen, Dec. 14 — The Lady Roos, coming off their third shared district championship in four seasons, host last year’s District 12-5A champion Lady Knights. The Lady Roos struggled against other Killeen ISD teams, but found a way to be successful in district.
Harker Heights at Temple, Jan. 4 — The first game of 2013 for both teams is last year’s District 12-5A champion, the Lady Knights, against the Tem-Cats who are favored to win District 8-5A. Temple was the only team to beat Harker Heights in the regular season last year.
Copperas Cove at Shoemaker, Dec. 14 — After more than a month — six games and two tournaments — on the road, the Lady Grey Wolves’ host the Lady Dawgs in their district home opener. With a new head coach and no Kiara Rawls, the Lady Grey Wolves will look like a different team than the one that last played at home on Nov. 13 against Austin Lake Travis.
Burnet at Lampasas, Feb. 5: As Lampasas’ biggest rival, anytime these teams get together there is always a lot of anticipation. The fact Burnet’s loss to Salado last season kept the Lady Badgers from forcing a playoff play-in should only add fuel to the small towns’ feud.
Waco Connally at Gatesville, Dec. 14: Former district foe Connally was one of the two teams Gatesville had to defeat last season in order to earn the final playoff berth for District 19-3A. Despite being in different districts this season, the rivalry remains intact.
Killeen at Copperas Cove, Dec. 11: This will be the first time these teams meet as district rivals since 2007. Last season, the Lady Bulldawgs beat Killeen 52-42 in a nondistrict game.
Harker Heights at Ellison, Dec. 18: This KISD series has become the biggest game in the area the last two years as both have held court over the other with Ellison winning all three meetings two years ago and Heights sweeping the series last year.
Ellison at Killeen, Feb. 1: This is the original crosstown rivalry, and this year it could have serious playoff implications. Both are perennial postseason teams, each having made the last three, and by now will almost assuredly be jockeying for seeding.
Contact Alex Byington at email@example.com or (254) 501-7566
Clay Whittington, Nick Talbot and Kevin Posival contributed to this preview.