By Brady Extin | The Times-Post
LAPEL — How do you follow up the best season in school history?
That’s the question mark surrounding the Lapel girls basketball team entering the 2023-24 season.
Eight months ago, a last-second three-point attempt just missed, giving the Bulldogs a 38-37 loss to Forest Park in the IHSAA Class 2A State Championship.
Despite the loss, the Bulldogs’ season was historic.
They finished the year with a 22-8 record and won Madison County, sectional, regional and semistate titles.
The semistate title was the first in school history, and in total the team hung five banners, something that hadn’t been done since 2007.
With those expectations and the thoughts of last season lingering around the halls of Lapel High School, the key for this year’s team, according to head coach Zach Newby, is to just forget about last season.
“I’m really trying not to talk about last year much. Obviously, we want to take experience from it, but we just have to see how we come into this year,” Newby said. “Last year we flew under the radar, were never ranked, and now this year we’re the game that’s going to be circled on people’s calendars. People are going to judge where they’re at by how they play us. We’ve talked about that, and how we have to be prepared every night because we’re going to get everybody’s best.”
Forgetting about last season is easier said than done; that state finals run has altered the way the team is approaching this year. The normal excitement and eagerness to begin the year haven’t disappeared, but they’ve been overshadowed by the team’s desire to make another run.
“We always have that excitement of coming into the season, but I think this year we’ve just been more dialed and focused, rather than excited. The kids came in ready to work,” Newby said. “We hadn’t won a sectional since 2007, so none of those kids knew what that was like, and it’s hard to believe it will happen or can happen if you haven’t done it before. Now that they’ve done it, and we made it to the last game, there’s that belief, so they’re more dialed in, focused and putting in the effort to execute again.”
The Bulldogs lost three key pieces from last year’s team — Kerith Renihan, Deannaya Haseman and Jaylee Hubble. The trio were starters in all 30 games.
Haseman averaged 8.6 points per game, Hubble averaged 6.5, and Renihan was the Bulldogs’ floor general and a lockdown defender, averaging nearly four assists and two steals a game.
But despite their departure, Lapel returns four of its top seven players from last season.
“Having four of your top seven back is huge. We have a lot of experience, and the kids that we’re bringing up got some varsity experience last year and played on an undefeated JV team,” Newby said. “We’ve got kids that are used to winning, and know what it takes to prepare to win. That’s huge, because then we can do more tweaking at the beginning rather than teaching.”
The other two starters for the Bulldogs, Laniah Wills and Maddy Poynter, are both back.
As a freshman, Wills was second in Class 2A and seventh overall in the state in rebounds per game, averaging 12.4. On the year she averaged a double-double, adding 15.8 points per game to go along with the rebounds.
This year, Newby expects her to play an even bigger role.
“The biggest thing has been her maturity. She’s stronger and has been in the weight room, but it’s how she prepares, listens, and her ability to be coachable. Mentally, she’s just a lot more mature,” Newby said. “She’s a much better leader, too. She’s vocal and has been talking to kids, so that’s huge for us. Then obviously, she’s expanded her basketball game this summer. She’s primed for another really good year.”
The Bulldogs’ No. 2 scorer, Poynter, has heightened expectations as well as she enters her senior season. She averaged 11.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last season.
A commitment over the summer to Grace College has Newby and the team expecting big things.
“Her committing to Grace over the summer was huge for her to get that off her shoulders. Getting that commitment over with, now she’s not playing to impress anybody and to get that scholarship,” Newby said. “That has allowed her to play more relaxed, and she’s another one that improved her game this summer. She’s quick and can get to the bucket, but you also have to defend her from three, so she’s going to be a tough guard for a lot of teams.”
Seniors Annalee Stow and Rosemary Likens were both key varsity role players last season but will be thrust into bigger roles this year. Stow appeared in all 30 games and averaged 3.5 points and 2.6 rebounds off the bench, while Likens appeared in 29 games and averaged 1.6 points.
Senior Jocelyn Love and junior Taylor Mroz, who both played some varsity minutes but were key players on the Bulldogs’ undefeated junior varsity team, will also be expected to play bigger roles this season.
Lapel opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1, on the road at Winchester.