SHEPHERDSVILLE - After ending the 2010-2011 season on a down note, losing by two points in the regional opener after an injury to the team's top player, the Bullitt Central Lady Cougars are entering the new season high on optimism and expectations.
Despite the addition of traditional power Mercy to the Sixth Region, coach Bryan Bates' team is one of the frontrunners to challenge Butler and Mercy for control of the revamped region.
Bates isn't looking to downplay any of the early talk of a big season.
"I always want to have high expectations," the veteran coach said before practice last week. "If your aim is low, then you won't achieve much. But yes, I like our team."
A year ago, the Lady Cougars could rotate ten players in a fast-paced attack with very little drop-off. That helped the team craft a 15-11 record that ended with the bummer when senior guard Keoka Hilliard severely sprained her ankle the day before the meeting with Holy Cross. Still, the maroon and gray recorded a victory over Bullitt East and finished as the district runner-up to the Lady Chargers.
Now, Bates has six of his top ten players from last season back. There are not a lot of questions in the team's first wave of talent, but it might take a little time before a full rotation can be developed.
"It just depends on how our depth develops," Bates pointed out. "We try to be an uptempo team. When you do that you need depth. You need to be fairly deep.
The loss of Hilliard will be felt. She graduated as the program's all-time leader in assists and the ball was always in her hands at key times.
The positive is that the Lady Cougars welcome back last season's second- and third-leading scorers as well as the second- and third leading rebounders. Those two are one in the same in senior front-line standouts Seaera Minyard and Kaitlyn McKnight. The two 5-10 seniors will carry a hefty load this winter.
Minyard is one of the area's top softball players and spent last summer going back and forth between the two sports in preparation for her senior campaign.
"They are tough," Bates said of the two players who each averaged just over 10 points a game last season. "They are two of the better players in the region. They are really good athletes. They are very experienced. Both will be starting for the third season."
Bates will once again run pretty much a three-guard line-up, or even four guards as McKnight plays outside on offense, but she will move inside on defense. That means that juniors Selena Yunt, Kayla Riggs and Kristen Collins will be in the starting line-up. Yunt was starting by the end of last season while Riggs got a lot of playing time spelling Hilliard at the point guard spot. Collins was the team's leading three-point shooter a year ago.
The coach is looking for defense to fuel his team's offense.
"We have some speed," Bates noted. "We are looking at that speed to play good defense. We are getting better at it.
"If we play good defense, then our offense will come from our defense," the coach added. "We have some kids who can shoot it. If we take care of things on defense, then our offense will come easily."
All five of the starters can shoot from beyond the arc.
"We encourage them to shoot it," Bates said. "We encourage them to take chances and make plays. I don't want anybody out there scared to make a play. We shoot threes. We have people who can score down low. We're not one dimensional."
The only player that will come off the bench with varsity experience is the team's third senior, Tori Boston. She will provide depth at a guard spot.
None of the other varsity players at this point have ever taken the court in a varsity contest. Most of them were a part of the Bullitt Central junior-varsity team last season that won the district tournament.
At this point, Bates plans to dress 12 for varsity games.
Help on the inside will come from 5-10 sophomore Chelsey Fogarty as well as 5-6 juniors Chasity Hodge and Haley Johns. Depth at guard will come from Boston along with juniors Kristyn Harned and Emily Ratliff. The back-up to Kayla Riggs at point guard will be her younger sister, sophomore Courtney Riggs.
Bates was asked what would have to happen for him to be happy at the end of March?
"Off the court to have the highest GPA of any activity in the school," the coach said. "On the court, I would say we want to win 20 games. Another is to win the district tournament. And, we want to advance in the regional tournament."
While Bates was not able to schedule either Mercy or Butler for this season, the Lady Cougars will play the other teams that will chase those two in the region - Bullitt East, North Bullitt, Holy Cross and Pleasure Ridge Park.
On the sideline, Bullitt Central did have one coaching change as last year's junior-varsity coach, Troy Wood, left to become an assistant principal at Bullitt East. Bates added former Bullitt East player Jennifer (Fletcher) Ritter to the staff to join Josh Cravens to round out the staff. Bates' father-in-law, former PRP head coach Charles Shipley, returns as a volunteer coach.
Bullitt Central will open the season next Wednesday at home against Doss.