The Rolla girls basketball team was extremely young last season and they will be again this season.
Last years' team had just two seniors and this season, the Lady Bulldogs will have just one senior in forward Mattie Dean The varsity has three juniors this year and more than half of the roster is sophomores with five. While they're still a young team, the Lady Bulldogs learned a lot from getting thrown into the fire last season.
"We learned how to compete every day in practice, which we've really the first few weeks so far this year," said head coach Luke Floyd. "I think we learned how you have to approach games, especially how to finish games. There were so many games last year that were four or five point games late, but we just didn't know how to win them. I think that experience should carry over into this and hopefully those will turn into some wins.
"More than anything, knowing how to approach practice, knowing you have to come to compete every single day. You can't just turn it on once you get into a game," continued Floyd. "It was hard because a lot of those freshman girls went from playing eighth grade basketball. They skipped freshman ball, they skipped JV ball and were thrown right into varsity. They were thrown into the fire, but as a coaching staff we thought it was the best approach so that we were ready to go starting this year and moving forward."
Coach Floyd has also made a shift in how he coaches the girls. Last season, they ran a very structured offense and that led to girls thinking about what to do, instead of just playing basketball. That led to a lot of turnovers, not from making the wrong pass, but thinking first and making a late pass. While they haven't seen live competition yet, coach Floyd has seen an improvement in their play.
"We kind of changed the way we're doing stuff, kinda letting them play a little more basketball and not be quite as structured. I've been very impressed with the way they're doing that," said the Rolla head coach. "I think we've played more basketball in the last three or four days than we have in three or four years combined. You can see the maturity in their game and just the trust in what we're wanting them to do and their trust in each other. That we're not just blowing smoke at them, if you do this, we'll have success and I think they've really bought into our system."
Rolla only has one senior, but that doesn't mean they're short on leadership. Dean has stepped up as the team's lone senior, but a lot of the younger players have shown that they want to be leaders on this team.
"Mattie has been vocal, that's one thing we've talked to her about. As a senior, I think she needs to be more vocal and lead by example, but a lot of those freshmen and sophomores from last year that are now sophomores and juniors have really stepped up in leadership roles and that's encouraging to see," said coach Floyd. "In the weight room, they're very vocal in working with the younger kids. It's odd to talk about your sophomores being the veteran group, but they really are. In practice, they're the ones pulling people aside and telling people this is how we have to do things."
Those young players have to lead, because they're doing a lot of the heavy lifting this season. Both primary ball carriers in Ellie Rodgers and Karlee Cheesman are sophomores that need to run the offense and get people where they need to be on the court. On the inside, fellow sophomores Rebecca Janke and Loran Pritchett have been helped get people in the right spots and led by example.
"You've got Rebecca Janke inside, who's coming back as a big girl, so she's able to work with some of the post players and tell them what she sees," said Floyd. "And Loran Pritchett, who's kind of a Jack of all trades and she's just a natural leader, you can tell she's a coach's kid. She's always in the right place and does the right things. Just overall the leadership and the chemistry of this team has been phenomenal and it's really shown on the practice floor."
Janke will be a real key inside for Rolla because she has great height at 6' 3", but now she's become a little bit more aggressive on the offensive end, which should lead to a lot more points. That will also make defenses collapse inside and open things out on the perimeter.
"Her offensive game has really come along. Last year, she was a really good force on the defensive end, she rebounded extremely well, but this year she has confidence in her offensive game," said the Rolla head coach. "She's not afraid to go an score. Last year, it seemed like scoring or even shooting would be the second or third thought in her mind, but this year she's wanting the ball and calling for the ball and the girls are doing a great job of finding her. I'm excited to see the season that she's going to have, because I think it's going to be a good one."
While Janke has stepped up on the offensive end, coach Floyd is planning on continuing the balanced approach they had last season. Rodgers led the team in scoring last year with about eight points a game and the Lady Bulldogs had nine players score between three and a half and eight points a game. Look for that spread out scoring to continue this season with, hopefully, an uptick on the point totals.
"I don't think we're ever going to have a real primary scorer," said Floyd. "We're gonna stay pretty balanced, but I think our scoring should increase. I think more girls are looking for the shot, more girls are confident in their shot. I know several spent a lot of time on their shot and getting a lot of shots up. With a lot of them last year, shooting was a second or third option, but I think a lot of them are more offensive minded and I think the system that we've put in this year allows them to kind of attack and not have to think as much."
Rolla returns four starters from last year, all sophomores, in Rodgers, Cheesman, Pritchett and Janke, while Dean has been a part of the rotation and had some time in the starting lineup throughout her high school career. They will all play fey roles, as will juniors Kiana Garner, Olivia Burken and Becca Skyles, who put in a lot of great work at the JV level to earn spots on the varsity this year.
"Kiana Garner is one that's really worked hard. As a freshman she played on the freshman team, JV last year and she's kind of worked up through our system and she's going to play quite a bit of varsity," said coach Floyd. "Olivia Burken is kind of the same way. She's really worked hard and I'm really encouraged by her in practice and I'm excited to see what she can do. She's kind of a big bodied girl that's strong and tough. She kind of fits the Loran Pritchett mold where she's kind of a Jack of all trades. She's one that we can play on the perimeter or inside a little bit. She can be a tough matchup I think as she gets more confident in her game."
The Lady Bulldogs have taken strides every season under coach Floyd and he's hoping that trend continues this season. Rolla was 8-17 last season and Floyd is hoping to see them get to .500, but he's more worried about improved play than a better record.
"I would hope for .500, but I don't really want to set a goal on it, because last year, I think I expected more than what we were able to do, but we really improved throughout the year," said coach Floyd. "Our point differential had gone from 35 or 40 our first year down to 20-something my second year and then last year it was down under nine. The improvement was there even though the record didn't always show that.
"This year we need to continue to work hard and just worry about wins and losses," continued Floyd. "As coach, I've been bad about getting caught up in that, about winning and losing, but it's not about that. It's about learning the game, doing things right and if you do all that and have fun, success will come."
The Lady Bulldogs will play in Willard's jamboree on Friday, Nov. 10 and face off against Willard and the defending Class 3 State Champions, Strafford. Coach Floyd wants to use this jamboree as a measuring stick heading into the season.
"Just to run our stuff against another opponent. We can run it against ourselves every day in practice, but we both know what we're going to do, so just to play somebody else and see how we compete," said the Rolla head coach. "We've got it set up where we're playing Willard and then Strafford, who is a tremendous team coming back. That's going to be a challenge for us, but it's also going to be a good measuring stick. It's easy to point to them and say they're the defending State Champions and have almost everybody back, but we just need to go out and compete, see where we stand in comparison to them."