By PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
A season ago the Lady Rams finished with a winning record and a spot in the regional final.
Coach Jeff Lonnon said he wants to see the program continue improving this year. Mt. Vernon ended the year with a 16-12 record and lost to rival Centralia in the playoffs. The Lady Rams enter this year with a trio of goals. They want have another winning season, finish in the top half of the South Seven Conference and claim a regional title.
“There was certainly positive that came out of what we did last year,” Lonnon said. “So I think the next step now for us is to accomplish more than one out of three of those goals.”
The Lady Rams return three frontcourt starters but will have to deal with the graduation of backcourt stalwarts Cheyenne Piper and Jessica Green. Both were three-year starters for Mt. Vernon and committed to play collegiate basketball. Lonnon called the duo ambassadors for the Lady Rams basketball program.
“They were lifers in Mt. Vernon basketball girls history,” Lonnon said. “They started young in our camps. They were here every year. They learned to love the game. They set a tremendous example to girls who maybe didn’t love it quite as much as they did, but they saw them achieve what they did on the floor.”
The top candidates to replace the outgoing guards are Claire Ryan and Courtney Scarbrough. Both players enter this year as juniors but lack experience because of the high level of play both Piper and Green brought to their positions.
“You’re playing behind those two, you don’t get a lot of opportunities,” Lonnon said.
Because of that inexperience Lonnon said there will be a transition period for both as they adjust and learn the nuances of the varsity game.
“We’re got to be patient with Claire and Courtney especially because they’re just juniors, and they didn’t get a lot of varsity time last year,” Lonnon said. “We’re going to lean on them real heavy all at once here at the varsity level.”
The Lady Rams return an abundance of experience to their frontcourt. So much so that Haley Lockhart, who spent most of her career around the basket, will play more of a perimeter role. The move will showcase more of her natural skills and alleviate some of the defensive and rebound burdens she’s been saddled with over the past two seasons. Lockhart is the team’s leading returning scorer.
“I think we’ll see Haley play a little more out on the floor where she can drive it and slash it and use her dribbling ability more,” Lonnon said.
Kelby Kujawa and Aaliyah Palmer also return and have consistently started in the past for the Lady Rams. Lonnon said his team will look to Kujawa for more scoring this season. He’s asked her to be more offensively aggressive.
“Kelby’s the glue that holds it all together out there,” Lonnon said. “I can put her at any spot, and she’s a very intelligent, smart kid.
“She needs to shoot more, and she needs to score more and that’s something we’re really throwing at her daily, almost every five minutes at practice.”
Palmer brings a perimeter shooting presence back to the team.
“Aaliyah’s shooting has gotten better from last year,” Lonnon said. “In practice this week, she’s just been lights out from the perimeter so we hope she keeps that up.”
Hannah Owens returns as a sophomore this season, and she provides a traditional post player for the Lady Rams. Owens has been playing basketball for just three years, but Lonnon said she has natural skills.
“Her rise and ability has been remarkable,” Lonnon said. “She’s a pretty special player around the basket. She’s got length. She’s got height. She has the ability to finish. She’s got touch on the ball.”
Another key post presence will come from Natalie Williamson, the team’s 5-11 senior.
Mt. Vernon opens the season at the Nashville Tournament. The Lady Rams starts pool play at 6:30 p.m. tonight against Okawville.