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Rochester girls basketball preview:

Lady Zs welcome back 10 returnees from sectional champs; tough early schedule beckons


Sports Editor, RTC

The Rochester girls basketball team shared the Three Rivers Conference title and won the Class 2A, Sectional 37 title.

The improvement could be considered sudden. They went from eight wins two years ago to 18 wins last year. They scored about 12 more points per game and allowed five fewer.

They return 10 players who played significant minutes last year.

But as coach Brian Jennings notes that the Lady Zs lost first-team all-Three Rivers Conference guard Maci Brown, Kensey McKee and Genni Isbell to graduation and that graduation might have hit RHS harder than many of their rivals.

“It’s a little different,” Jennings said. “When you lose three seniors that were part of the program for two years while I was here, it takes some adjustments. But overall, I feel that we’re farther along as knowing our offenses and knowing our defenses this year than we’ve ever been. It’s just making some adjustments.”

It could well be a good thing that they are farther along. Their schedule includes Class 2A, No. 6 North Judson, Class 4A state runner-up Northwestern and Class 3A state champ NorthWood within the first two weeks.

Players like Kaitlin Rogers, Lexy Thomas, Emily Hughes, Emma Howdeshell, Kallie Watson, Kylie Coleman and Sydney Haughs all play volleyball, and that team just finished its season in the regional final less than two weeks ago. While the non-volleyball players got a week to start practicing, the volleyball players have had to adjust quickly.

“The kids have been going through a lot with the COVID situation and getting used to things,” Jennings said. “The volleyball team went to the regional, so they missed the first week. I think we still had seven players on the volleyball team at that point, so it’s been a little different, but I’m really happy with the way things are going along. The kids are working extremely hard this year. It seems like we’re going at a lot faster pace than what we have in the past.”

Jennings said he was pleased with the team’s defense in a scrimmage against Oak Hill Saturday. Though the defensive rules in a scrimmage are controlled in terms of what defenses are allowed and when a team can press, the Lady Zs held Oak Hill to just 19 points in four quarters.

“There were a couple of quarters where Oak Hill didn’t score, and I think we’re finding our offensive players,” Jennings said. “I think we’ve got some some players in the offseason that have really picked up their game and brought a little more offense to the Zebras.”

Rogers, who averaged 6.9 points per game last year, is the leading returning scorer. Already an accomplished 3-point shooter, Jennings said Rogers has worked on her post skills and her ability to drive to the basket.

“She’s really more aggressive wanting the basketball,” Jennings said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ve wanted her to want the ball a little bit more than what she has in the past, but I think now she has that senior mentality. It’s her year, and she’s going down swinging. … On the offensive end, I just want some consistency out of her, probably in that 12-to-15-points a night is what we’re looking to. Ever since I’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve had a player average over 10 points a game. I think Kaitlin’s going to be the one who busts out and can consistently do that because she has the inside-outside game.”

Other seniors include Mercedes Brown, who will back up Howdeshell at the point, and Kim Batten, who provides some of the same attributes as Rogers, according to Jennings.

The top newcomer could be Haughs, who will give RHS a fifth sophomore on the varsity to go with point guard Emma Howdeshell, versatile guard Kallie Watson, versatile wing Kennedy Jackson and post player Millie Scorsone.

“We had some players out against Oak Hill, and I think Syd stepped in and shot the ball real well,” Jennings said. “I think she had eight points in that game, had three or four real nice assists, does a good job of handling the ball and positions herself really well on defense. So now that sophomore class has five that can really play.”

While the seniors are the most experienced and the sophomores the ones who made an instantaneous impact as freshmen last year, it’s the juniors who might be the pulse of the team.

Kami Burkett has improved her ballhandling and shooting skills, according to Jennings. She might also replace Brown as an on-the-ball defensive hawk.

Thomas and Hughes have been varsity mainstays since midway through their freshman seasons.

“A lot of people talk about the sophomore class, and yes, we’re going to lean on Kaitlin a lot, but I tell you that this junior class will be who we lean on throughout most of the season,” Jennings said. “Lexy is the heart and soul of our defense and rebounding and just our physical toughness. Emily Hughes is a highly skilled player. She can play a wing. She can play the post – 6-1, good wing span. And then the speed and athleticism that Burkett has, it’s really turned out to be an extremely good class. They can do a lot of things, and we’re going to rely heavily on those three throughout the season.”

Their depth and experience will receive an immediate test.

“We’re starting out with a tough schedule,” Jennings said. “We have our work cut out for us. … We’ve got to be prepared. It is going to be interesting to see if we come out and play like a confident, sectional championship team. How are we going to react if we go in a stretch that we don’t play well? How are we going to react? I think we have the experience now, the leadership now that I think we’ll be able to fight through those lulls in your game better than what we have in the past.”

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