The Rolla girls basketball team turned some heads last year when they recovered from a 1-6 start to eventually finish 13-14, playing in the District Championship. While they fell six points short in the contest, Rolla made an impact. Now it's time for the follow up.
Last season, the Lady Bulldogs were extremely young. They had a strong sophomore crew that only got better with another year of experience. Rolla had just one senior last year in Mattie Dean, but there's one other big loss that they've had to adjust to this offseason, as starting guard Karlee Cheesman moved away. While it's been an adjustment losing another starter, the Lady Bulldogs have rolled with the punches. The Lady Bulldogs will be led by a group of juniors in Ellie Rodgers, Loran Pritchett and Rebecca Janke and that crew now has a new batch of freshmen to help a long the way.
"It's been great. They've been mentoring another huge class of freshmen we have coming in," said head coach Luke Floyd. "As juniors, they're able to kind of walk those freshmen through what to expect and what other teams are doing. To see them take on a leadership and a mentor role like that has been pretty awesome."
Rolla's experience starts in the paint. The duo of Janke and Pritchett down low provides matchup issues for a lot of teams and the pair have only gotten better.
"More than anything, just the leadership aspect," said coach Floyd of how his junior center and forward have progressed this offseason. "I watched Rebecca this summer just talk to the younger girls and be another coach on the floor, where in the past, you didn't always see that out of her.
"Loran didn't get to play with us a lot this offseason because of injuries, but to see her come back and just have more confidence in her game," continued the Rolla head coach. "She's taking shots from outside that last year wasn't even a thought in her mind and now she's shooting it with confidence. Just like with Rebecca, the leadership she's showing, talking with the younger girls...just having another set of experienced eye balls out on the court has been huge for our program."
One player that eases the loss of Cheesman up top is Rodgers. Rolla will still bring back an experienced ball-handler despite losing a starting guard, which is crucial on a team with a lot of young guards.
"Ellie, she was thrown in the fire at point guard as a freshman, so she's been through all of it," said coach Floyd. "With the younger girls, she's making the adjustment of pointing out things to them that she's seeing. She's having to think more and vocalize more of what she's seeing more at practice. She's somebody that we can definitely lean on. She's very good at seeing the floor and what's going on out there and at the same time she can score, so she's very multi-faceted in what she can do."
Rounding out the returning regulars is a player that surprised some people last season by fighting her way into some regular playing time and that's Kiana Garner. She comes into her senior season with some great experienced and is the kind of hard-nosed player that can round out a lineup.
"She's gotten more confidence and trust in her game," said the Lady Bulldog head coach. "She'll go out and knock down shots. Her mid-range game is probably the best we have on the team. She has a really good mid-range shot and she's looking for that a lot more. Defensively, you never have to question what she's going to give you. She's going to get up and guard and work hard and just giving that example every day of what is expected."
Rolla will also have a slew of freshmen chipping in this season, as five have made the varsity lineup out of the gate. Several of those players are guards with Madison Mace, Carli Libhart and Taniya Corley all expected to make a splash up top. The Lady Bulldogs also have a pair of tall, young forwards in Savannah Campbell and Emma Floyd that will help out in the paint.
"Carli Libhart, Taniya Corley and Madison Mace are three guards we have coming in, very skilled, working hard and playing well. Then we have Savannah Campbell and Emma Floyd both coming in. 5'11", athletic kids. They're not as big as Rebecca and they're not as physically thick as what Loran is, but they're going to get there. They're good athletic kids with long limbs," said coach Floyd. "Our guards, there's so much quickness amongst them. Taniya, Madison and Carli, they're just so quick and anticipate so well at the defensive end. I think they're really going to open things up for us by doing that and then just another outside threat."
With so much young talent coming in at the guard position, Rolla will probably up the pace a little bit on both sides of the ball. Look for more of an uptempo offense and more pressing on the defensive side of the ball.
"Definitely. Just depth alone will allow us to press more. Last year, I think by the end of the season we were going about seven deep on our bench. This year, we can go nine or 10 deep pretty easy, so we can press more," said coach Floyd. "The pace we want to play, we talk about it every day, we have to be in shape, because we want our opponents grabbing their shorts three or four minutes into the game because they're worn out."
With the number of experienced players coming back, which also includes senior Olivia Burken and junior Kate Brand, the Lady Bulldogs won't need to lean too heavily on that big freshman class. Those freshmen will get a lot of minutes, but they have more experienced players around them that can shoulder the load.
"They're going to get a lot of minutes, but unlike our junior class where as freshmen you're the man and you're starting from day one, these girls don't have to do that," said Floyd. "We don't need anyone to come in and be a superstar, they can ease into it, while getting quality minutes."
One of the things that coach Floyd has stressed is that his team has gotten so much better at not being overwhelmed by the moment. Rolla learned how to play in big games as the season went on last season and eventually played a very tough Osage team for the District Championship. He thinks his team is even more prepared to play in those big games this season.
"I know we won't get overwhelmed by the moment maybe like we did last year," said coach Floyd. "Last year I think there were a lot of nerves and uncertainty, where this year, there's a lot of confidence. Just seeing us play in our jamboree, there was a lot of confidence on the floor. They weren't intimidated by the teams we were playing (which included three time defending State Champion Strafford) we just went out and knew if we played our style we would be okay and we did really well just by having that added confidence."
That road to their second straight District Championship will be a different one. All three of the teams Rolla faced in Districts last season are gone, as the Lady Bulldogs will face a new group in Class 4 District 10. Most of Rolla's District comes from the Four Rivers Conference with Owensville, St. Clair, Sullivan and Union facing off against Rolla and Salem. The Lady Bulldogs only have two District teams on their regular season schedule, as Rolla plays Sullivan in their second game of the season on Tuesday and face Salem in December. Coach Floyd is looking forward to the challenge of a new District this year.
"Like last year's District, it's one that's very winnable if we go out and take care of business. You've got Sullivan and Union, some of these schools that are very good schools. Nothing is going to be given to us," said coach Floyd. "I think we understand the importance of really getting that number one seed and how much that helps to get that first round bye and be able to rest a little bit."
Rolla opens their season on Saturday with the Key Sport Tip-Off Classic. The Lady Bulldogs will face Hickman at 3 p.m.