By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
Jerry Walker is laying low and that’s the way he prefers it.
Walker’s Fort Gibson girls basketball team lost three starters and the gold ball last year in a bid to repeat as champions. Consequently, they’re not as much the hunted right now.
He doesn’t mind not being in the crosshairs.
“I think we’ll surprise some people,” he said. “When you lose three starters, people think we’re going to be rebuilding. I think we’re going to be better than people expect.”
Fort Gibson has been in this situation before.
Nobody thought much of the Lady Tigers after Arizona’s Carissa Crutchfield (she transferred after last season from Oklahoma State) graduated three seasons ago. All they did was march to the state championship with a perfect record.
This season, Walker welcomes back two starters, Taylor London (five points per game and two rebounds per game) and Savannah Gray (6 ppg, 6 rpg), from a team that finished 28-2, losing to Anadarko in the title game. He’s not worried about the apparent lack of experience as they’ve been tested in preseason scrimmages.
“We don’t look impressive when we warm up, but the kids have played and worked really hard,” he said. “They’re a really good group.”
One of those scrimmages was against Anadarko. Fort Gibson won 27-10 in the 20-minute scrimmage at Midwest City.
“Our kids were tough-minded and physically tough,” Walker said. “They went after every loose ball. We outworked other people that day.”
The Lady Tigers also have other returnees including Allie Glover, the younger sister of Jodi Glover. The sophomore Glover shot 45 percent from 3-point range during the season and led the squad in 3-point percentage.
Others back include Hannah Cantrell and 5-10 Brooke Palmer.
Speaking of the Tigers and experience, Tahlequah Lady Tigers coach Chad Walker knows something about that as all five starters are back from his 17-8 squad that lost in the 5A regional consolation finals to Grove.
“We hope we can build on last year,” Walker said. “We had a successful season and accomplished more than we thought we could. We won our conference championship for the first time in 25 years.”
Returning players include Randee O’Donnell (10 ppg), Casey Beaston (9.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Marissa Girdner and Jhonett Cookson and Desiree Phipps.
Tahlequah also got a boost with 5-10 sophomore Reagan Clark and 5-8 Whitney Wright moving up to the varsity this season.
“We didn’t have a post player we could sub in last year and we do now with Reagan,” Walker said. “Whitney is very aggressive going to the basket. If we can get everybody on the same page, we should be OK.
“I’m very excited about the upcoming season and I’m excited about the future in general. There are a lot of successful times ahead, starting with this year.”
The future is now also at Sequoyah, even though the Lady Indians have a new head coach in Larry Grigg, who steps over from the boys program to replace the departed Bill Nobles who left the Lady Indians for a similar position at Porter.
Grigg anticipates immediate success as six returnees are back from the 20-9 squad that lost in the Class 3A area consolation to Wilburton. Courtney Jones (14.3 ppg) leads the returning players along with Kesley Leach (7 ppg), Baylee Ratliff, Feather Pacheco, Loren Young and Mariah Hooper.
“If we develop like I think we will, we’ll be deeper than we were last year,” Grigg said.
Grigg wants them to play the up-tempo style he preferred when he was the boys coach at Sequoyah.
“We’re looking for more kids to score as we want to play 94 feet,” he said. “When I coached the boys, we played that way. We also want to be more physical defensively.”
Muskogee looks to defense to develop some talent around a pair of standout guards from last season’s 20-8 Class 6A quarterfinalist. Kelsey McClure (5-7, 14.2 ppg) and Alexus Wilson (5-9, 11.7 ppg, 6 rpg) are those returnees.
“Those two will give us good punch while our younger players get their 6A legs under them,” said Muskogee coach Doyle Rowland. “Both them will have a chance to play Division I basketball and we know what we’re going to get from them.
“But it takes five to win. We’ll have a bunch of inexperienced players to start with by but mid-season, they should come on and be pretty good.”
Those younger Lady Roughers include 5-11 forward/post Sydni Carter, 5-10 forward/center Mari Jackson and 5-7 guard Ja’layah Tillman. Other players Rowland will be looking to contribute include Aalyah Wilson (Alexus’ younger sister), Lanixce Rozell and Jada Ford.
“I like the attitude of our girls,” he said. “They’re in the gym daily and sometimes twice a day. We’re just going to lay our cards on the table and see how they stack up.”
Oktaha’s girls are stacking up for another deep run in Class 2A. The Lady Tigers return Jaylie Roper (11.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Lanessa Grayson, Shelby Gamble and Makayla Baldridge from the 29-1 team that reached the state quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Fairview.
“We’ve got some solid girls as we played a lot of kids last year,” coach Chester Pittman said. “We’re also counting on new kids (Shae Lynch, Jordan Austin, Garren Yandell and Bailey Campbell) to give us quality minutes.”
Coach Jordan Garner looks for a solid Eufaula Lady Ironheads outfit in Class 3Ain his first season at the helm. Garner, the former Gore boys coach, looks for good seasons from Alyssa Banks (18.4 ppg) and Cheyanna Jones (8.1).
“They’ve worked hard in their off-season conditioning. They’ve done everything I’ve asked,” he said, adding that “coaching girls after coaching boys won’t be that big of adjustment for me.”
Hulbert’s girls have an air of mystery surrounding them as Rick Ott takes over the Lady Riders. He inherits a team that finished 19-7 before losing in the Class 2A consolation regional finals. Allison Arnall (12 ppg, 3 rpg), Lindsay Krueger (10 ppg) and Tiffany Thompson (11 ppg) are the returnees.
This year’s sleeper:
Hilldale could be a team to watch out for in 2012-13.
The Lady Hornets have a year under coach Scott Hensley and they are not lacking in experience with 5-10 Jessica VanSchuyver (7 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-8 Nicole Wright (8 ppg, 5 rpg) leading the way in trying to improve on last season’s 7-18 record in Class 4A.
Other area players to watch:
Brooke Hurst, 5-4, Sr.,G, Stiger – 10.7 ppg.
Hannah Mackey, 5-5, Jr. G, Braggs – 8.7 ppg.
Katie Smith, Sr., Checotah – 8 ppg.
Caitlin Stinnett, 5-5, Sr., F, Porum – 10 ppg.
Mallory Smith, 5-5, Sr., F, Porum – 8 ppg.
Raven Girty, 5-9, Jr., C, Warner – 9.9 ppg.
Phoenix Super 7
1. Fort Gibson