On paper, McMinn County’s girls look to have the right combination of talent and experience to contend for a District 5-AAA championship this basketball season.
With three seniors and seven juniors, it’s definitely the most loaded with upperclassmen the Lady Cherokees have been in a while. That may be of great benefit as the Lady Tribe looks to bounce back from a 2017-2018 campaign that ended in a downward spiral to an early district tournament exit after an 11-4 start.
“We want to be vying for a district championship. That’s what we start with every year,” said McMinn Coach Tim McPhail, entering his 12th season at the helm. “And I think we’ve got the talent to throw our name in the mix there, but you never know.”
Headlining the senior class is Bryan College signee Kaitlynn Hennessee, who has led the Lady Cherokees in most statistical categories in her career. Sharpshooter Hannah Burns and post Jayden Schiestel round out the class McPhail is expecting strong leadership from.
“This is a really good senior group that we’ve got with Kaitlynn, Hannah and Jayden. I hope that they step up and are leaders throughout the year,” McPhail said. They’ve done a good job of doing that this first week of practice, and I know what I’m going to get out of them night in and night out. So that’s good going into the season to have that.”
The junior class is a mix of veterans and newcomers to the Lady Tribe. Whitney Green, a starter most of last season, is the second-leading returning scorer. Ashley Baxter, a strong post presence who can also step outside and shoot from the perimeter, and the versatile and athletic Paige Manney also return having played a lot of minutes.
“Whitney started most, if not all of our games last season, Ashley is shooting it very well in practice, and Paige is one of those who can do just about everything on the floor, from playing in the post to guarding the point guard,” McPhail said.
Two promising junior transfers start this season eligible after having to sit out last year: Janice Dankworth, formerly of Meigs County, and Jaliyah Miller, previously of McMinn Central. Rounding out the junior class are Allie White, who has come up from junior varsity, and post Savannah Sitzler. Any or all of these juniors could vie for significant playing time.
“There’s still some unknowns out of that class as far as playing time and what not,” McPhail said.
The two sophomores are Aubrey Pickel and Ansley Oliver. Oliver is currently out with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear, and her return is unknown.
Pickel is someone who could prove to be a spark plug.
“Aubrey Pickel, that girl plays her heart out. She makes up for her lack of size with how she plays on the floor,” McPhail said. “She’s also in the mix for playing time.”
Although McMinn is heavy on upperclassmen this season, McPhail said the three-member freshman class of Jillian Daniels, Allison Hansford and Addie Smith could also vie for playing time. Daniels, in particular, possesses size in the post that the Lady Cherokees have not had in a while.
“I’ve never had a girl her size down low, so that’s really going to be fun to have the next four years,” McPhail said of Daniels.
Hansford and Smith, as they both proved in standing out for McMinn’s soccer team this season, could also be factors in the rotation simply because of their athleticism.
“When you put them on the floor, they make a lot of stuff happen with just their athletic ability,” McPhail said.
With 15 on the varsity roster this year, McPhail said he’s still trying to figure out not only the starting lineup, but the rotation coming off the bench as well.
However McMinn’s rotation turns out, it will be tested early and often, both in and out of district play.
The Lady Cherokees play their season-opening Hall of Fame Games at home against two solid opponents from the region’s opposite District 6-AAA – Rhea County on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and White County on Friday, Nov. 16.
Those are followed by two home games Monday, Nov. 19, and Tuesday, Nov. 20, against District 5-AA opponents Sequoyah and Meigs County, respectively. Meigs is considered one of the two runaway favorites in its district this season.
After Thanksgiving are games against Hardin Valley and Bearden in Hardin Valley’s Thanksgiving tournament, and then Tuesday, Nov. 27, is a game against cross-creek rival McMinn Central, also a favorite in District 5-AA, as usual.
“Going back to the age of this team, having a lot of veterans is going to work to our benefit, to have that leadership and those veterans in there, especially with that tough early schedule,” McPhail said.
And as for McMinn’s district, Bradley Central is once again the clear favorite despite the graduation of Rhyne Howard, now at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s a tough district year in and year out. It fluctuates, but typically over the last four or five years it’s been Bradley and everybody else,” McPhail said. “And until somebody does something about that, that’s what everybody expects.”
East Hamilton, Cleveland and Walker Valley will also be in the way as the Lady Cherokees look to stake claim to at least a top-four district finish, if not a championship.
“We’re right there in the mix of it, so we’ll see how it turns out,” McPhail said. “It’s usually a dog fight night in and night out with those top four of five.”
Also notable is the structure of McMinn’s schedule, with most of its home games taking place before the new year. After 2019 rings in, the Lady Cherokees will have just one home game on Jan. 4 against Walker Valley, then will play a seven-game road stretch that encompasses the rest of January.
“You don’t ever want your schedule to turn out the way it did for us this year, but sometimes, that’s just the way it goes,” McPhail said. “It’s good to have those games early at home, but it’s also a little scary getting into the whole month of January on the road, especially if you’re not playing your best basketball. Sometimes playing at home helps with that issue, but if you’re on the road for six or seven straight games, that’s going to be a tough stretch.”