By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
The Killeen gym was packed as two of the city's programs squared off in what was by far the most celebrated basketball game of the year, all for a first-ever region semifinal appearance.
Only, this one was for the ladies.
Taking the reigns from their male counterparts, who have seemingly claimed stake to the Killeen hoops scene for ages, the biggest show in town was last season's third between the Ellison and Harker Heights girls basketball teams.
The upstart Lady Knights (27-11), who had lost the previous two meetings - including 45-36 when both teams were tied atop the District 12-5A standings with three games left - jumped ahead early and built what looked like an insurmountable 42-27 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But the district champion Lady Eagles (30-8) weren't going down that easily, outscoring Heights 30-6 in the fourth quarter and in overtime to win 57-48 in front of an appreciative crowd.
Ellison's run would end three days later against eventual state runner-up Georgetown in the Region II-5A semifinals at the Ferrell Center in Waco.
This year, both teams return a majority of last year's rosters to headline an elite group of girls hoops prospects that should mean even more exciting games to come for the 2011-12 season.
Last season: 9-25, 1-13 12-5A
Outlook: Belton again lacks size this season and will have to rely on the speed of guards like Torie Henderson, who will be counted on more heavily this season after the departure of do-it-all guard Meghan Braeuer. The Lady Tigers do have two junior posts over 6-foot in Savannah Frick and Alexus Dunning, but it should be a rebuilding year for new coach Brenda Gomez, who led Robinson to the Class 3A state championship two years ago. Gomez, 51, comes to Belton after four seasons at Robinson.
Last season: 21-11, 6-8 12-5A
Outlook: The Lady Bulldawgs ended 2010 on a three-game losing streak, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The team welcomes Teresa Durham, who takes over as head coach after leading China Spring to the playoffs seven times and winning the Class 3A state championship in 2006. Cove will be without junior Stephanie Cochran, who suffered a knee injury during fall ball. The Lady Dawgs do return sisters Alex and Sarai Rodriguez, as well as junior Shawnte Goff, an all-district second teamer last season.
Last season: 30-8, 11-3 12-5A (District champions, Region II-5A semifinalist)
Outlook: In an emotionally-charged season, the Lady Eagles united as a family following the untimely death of one of their own, going on to win 10 of their last 11 district games to clinch the school's first district title in a decade. Returning four of five starters from last year's school-record 30-win campaign, including 6-1 post Alayshia Hunter and guard Kanetria Curtis, Ellison coach Sherry McKinnon believes an infusion of new blood - 6-1 junior post Kaitlyn Shear and 5-10 freshman Jordanna Porter - could power the team even farther than its first-ever Region II semifinal appearance.
Last season: 9-20, 1-13 27-2A
Outlook: Florence could be in for another long season as head coach Drake Stanczak tries to rebuild a struggling Lady Buffs program. Expect Florence to run a slow-paced offense in order to frustrate its opponents. If the Lady Buffs are going to improve on the one district win of last season, they will have to do it with defense.
Last season: 19-11, 6-4 19-3A
Outlook: The Hornets were in the playoff mix until the end last season, rebounding after the team lost standout McKamie Place for the season during tournament play. Gatesville won four of its final five district games and returns a slew of all-district talent. The wildcard for the Hornets will be when their season will actually begin, as most key contributors, including Glynna Johnson, Skye Truss and Kaitlin Poe, are also on the volleyball team, which could match last year's run to the region semifinals.
Last season: 27-11, 10-4 12-5A (No. 3 seed, Region II-5A quarterfinalist)
Outlook: After two years of growing pains, the young but talented Lady Knights finally began to emerge as a legitimate playoff contender. The only thing standing in their way was next-door rival Ellison. But this year, Heights returns all five starters and more off last season's Region II-5A quarterfinalist team and is widely considered the area's most stacked roster, including 6-foot-1 posts Eboniey Jeter and Brianna Freeman to go along with four-year starting guards Briana Golden and Shanice Davis.
Last season: 20-12, 7-3 8-4A (No. 3 seed, bi-district finalist)
Outlook: After back-to-back district co-championships in 25-4A, the Lady Roos finished third in top-heavy District 8-4A last season with a slew of youngsters. Led by 6-foot junior forward Jasmine Goodwine, the Lady Roos return four of last year's five starters, including Imari Simpson, who averaged 18 points in Killeen's final three regular season games and scored a game-high 27 in the Lady Roos' bi-district playoff loss to Arlington Seguin.
Last season: 9-24, 4-6 25-3A
Outlook: Former Lady Badger standout Jenny Bowden takes over a Lampasas program that struggled last season but featured just two seniors. Bowden helped Lampasas reach the 4A region semifinals in 1999. She comes up from Lampasas Middle School, but served as an assistant at San Saba and China Spring. The Lady Badgers were 3-3 at one point in district play, and will look for leadership from seniors Whitney Cauthen and Megan Mason, last season's 25-3A Newcomer of the Year.
Last season: 19-17, 6-4 25-3A (No.3 seed, Region IV-3A finalist)
Outlook: Led by a strong class of seniors, including four-year 2,060-point guard Hadley Joiner, the Lady Eagles pulled off an improbable postseason run to the Region IV-3A finals, where they lost to No. 2 Rockport-Fulton. After just barely making the playoffs as the third seed out of 25-3A, Salado rolled off three straight upset victories over ranked opponents. But despite the losses to graduation, Salado returns several key pieces, including 6-foot-1 post Carling Urben and shooting guard Alexis Bowman.
Last season: 14-19, 6-8 12-5A
Outlook: After going winless in 12-5A in 2009, the Lady Grey Wolves had wins against every team in the district except Harker Heights and Temple, including program-first wins over A&M Consolidated, Bryan and Copperas Cove. They'll have to replace LaFaydra Collins' post presence, but the Lady Grey Wolves return the bulk of last year's team that won four of their last six games, including their last two against Cove and Ellison.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Alex Rodriguez, Copperas Cove
A newcomer to the Lady Dawgs last season, Rodriguez did a little bit of everything in earning all-district first- team honors. The senior can get to the basket, but can also be just as deadly from the 3-point line.
Alayshia Hunter, Ellison
Last year's District 12-5A co-MVP, Hunter was a quiet force for the 30-win Lady Eagles, averaging a team-high 10.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and two blocks per game last year. The 6-foot-2 Louisiana-Monroe committed post came up big during the playoff run, shooting 55 percent over the final five games.
Glynna Johnson, Gatesville
The 6-foot-3 post is a dominant force during volleyball season, and has shown flashes of that on the basketball court. Johnson, a Northwestern State commitment for volleyball, was a all-district second-team pick last year.
Eboniey Jeter, Harker Heights
Despite sometimes disappearing in her first varsity season last year, the 6-foot-1 senior post showed the big presence she can have for the guard-heavy Lady Knights - both controlling the boards and scoring. Jeter, a North Texas commit, averaged 10.4 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game as a junior.
Jasmine Goodwine, Killeen
The dynamic 6-foot junior forward can play any position on the court and was an all-district first-team selection last season after averaging 13 points and nine rebounds a game.
Megan Mason, Lampasas
Mason was one of the lone bright spots for a Lady Badger team that struggled much of last season. The senior made an impression on opposing coaches in being named the 25-3A Newcomer of the Year last season.
Alexis Bowman, Salado
Tossed into a starting role as a sophomore, the senior point guard is one of just a small handful of returners this season and will be counted on to shoulder much of the scoring for the Lady Eagles, who'll try to build off last season's postseason magic.
Kiara Rawls, Shoemaker
The two-time all-district first-team selection averaged almost 20 points a game last year but has become a better all-around player as her teammates have developed around her.
Also worth a look (or two)
Shanice Davis, Harker Heights; Brianna Freeman, Harker Heights; Briana Golden, Harker Heights; Cion Hicks, Shoemaker; Carling Urben, Salado; Ocleta Young, Ellison; Imari and Imani Simpson, Killeen; Shawnte Goff, Copperas Cove.
GAMES TO WATCH
Killeen at Ellison, Tuesday: The Lady Eagles have won the last two season-openers between these two perennial playoff teams.
Pflugerville at Killeen, Friday: The Lady Roos open their season with a pair of preseason ranked 5A teams, including No. 15 Pflugerville.
Mansfield Timberview at Ellison, Nov. 18: This is an early season meeting between two top-20 preseason programs as the No. 12 Lady Eagles get a chance at revenge following last year's 44-41 loss.
Harker Heights at Killeen, Dec. 2: Killeen missed 17 free throws in its 49-43 loss to the Lady Knights on the road in the teams' only meeting last season.
Ellison at Copperas Cove, Dec. 20: Cove beat the Lady Eagles in the Bush's Chicken Holiday Classic last year, but Ellison swept the 12-5A series.
Harker Heights at Ellison, Jan. 3: The Lady Eagles controlled this series last season, sweeping it during the District 12-5A slate and then a third time in an epic Region II-5A quarterfinal game.
Shoemaker at Copperas Cove, Jan. 10: A buzzer-beater was waived off the second time these two met, giving Shoemaker its first-ever win over Cove.
Waco Midway at Killeen, Jan. 27: The Lady Panthers were only the District 8-4A team to sweep Killeen last year en route to Midway's Region I-4A tournament appearance.
Tournaments to See
Chisholm Trail Tournament at Belton, Nov. 10-13
M.T. Rice Tournament at Waco, Dec. 28-30
Staff writers Angel Verdejo, Kevin Posival and Nick Talbot contributed to this preview.