Most high school basketball coaches try to set up their season schedules so that the non-conference part of the slate can help their teams build toward postseason success.
Evanston girls coach Elliot Whitefield is taking a slightly different approach. His No. 1 goal for the 2015-16 squad that opens the season Tuesday against Wheaton Warrenville South at the Lady Saxons Tournament hosted by Schaumburg is to challenge rival New Trier for the Central Suburban League South division championship.
And, if ETHS makes the same progress as a team as the Wildkits made last winter, there’s no doubt they’ll be capable of a deep postseason run, too.
Whitefield welcomes back a still-young squad that returns 6 of the top 7 players from last year. Every single one of those players is still just a junior, and they’ll be out to improve on last season’s 19-12 won-loss record that included a 2-point loss to New Trier in the sectional championship game.
You could measure Evanston’s growth as a team on the court just by that season-ending loss, because the Trevians won the two regular season contests between the two rivals by 19 and 25 points. But the maturity level of those (then) sophomores rose remarkably, especially over the second half of the season, and the learning curve about what it takes to compete at the varsity level went off the charts by season’s end.
Now Whitefield hopes they can match that kind of progress this year, with a more challenging schedule in front of them.
“Our schedule is much tougher this year,” Whitefield said. “We’re playing in a shootout at Fremd (Dec. 5 against Rock Island) and we’re also going to play in the Montini Christmas Tournament. When we play these out-of-conference games, I want us to have to play really, really well to beat teams. It’s important for a team to have to go through some adversity, where you have to fight back when you’re playing against teams that just won’t quit.
“Since we’re still so young, people talk about next year being our year when they’re all seniors. But next year is next year and there are no guarantees about what will happen then. We need to focus on being the best we can be THIS year, and to be the best, you have to play the best.”
Evanston will end its long association with the Dundee-Crown Holiday Tournament, after finishing in 3rd place the last two seasons there, for a slightly shorter bus trip to Montini for the Christmas holiday. “There were over 90 college coaches at Montini’s tournament last year, and the level of competition will be better for us, even in the first round,” Whitefield pointed out. “And there are so many conference schools (New Trier, Maine South, Maine West) at Dundee, and we don’t need to play New Trier four times in a year. The competition at Montini is really legitimate.
“Last year was the most improved team I’ve coached from the start of the season — and they had the most growing to do as a team. Last year they came together and became a team, and we need to do that again this year.”
Returning starters Leighah-Amori Wool, Savannah Norfleet, Krystal Forrester, Leah Robinson and Allysah “Cookie” Boothe will offer a matchup nightmare for foes in and out of the conference. Another potential junior starter, Hanan Richmond, moved to Philadelphia to live with her mother, but incoming 5-foot-9 freshman SyAnn Holmes could ease that loss if she can earn consistent minutes at the varsity level.
The 6-1 Wool was an all-CSL South division selection as a sophomore and is already being recruited by schools like Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Missouri-Kansas City.
“If Leighah’s playing well, we’ll be very tough to beat,” Whitefield predicted. “She has to continue to develop because she’ll have to handle the ball more for us this year, and she needs to stay on top of her conditioning so she’ll be in tip-top shape against the competition we have to play.
“Teams will focus on stopping Leighah because she’s our only returning all-conference player. But I think we’ll be a little more balanced with our scoring this year. Krystal (Forrester) has worked hard on her shot to try to bring other teams’ post players away from the basket, and I think she’ll surprise some people when she steps out to shoot. Cookie (Boothe) knows that at 5-4 she has to be ready to shoot and catch because it’s hard to get your shot off otherwise. And she’s one of our best shooters.
“Savannah (Norfleet) can do things with the ball that no one else on our team can do. For us to get to an elite level as a team, she has to protect the ball and make good decisions out there. And she has to realize that defending is guarding for an entire possession, not just on the ball. We’re still looking for someone to be that coach-on-the-court type of player for us — and you usually want that to be your point guard.”
Whitefield said Robinson, at an athletic 6-feet tall, has already lifted her game to another level during the summer and preseason workouts.
“I think she’s the one who has improved the most overall,” he said. “She’s a beast on the boards and her shot has improved at that No. 4 (forward) spot, too. She can also play the post if we want to bring Krystal outside at times.”
Another junior, Brianna Miller, will be in the mix in the backcourt along with sophomores TaMia Banks and Amaiya Johnson. Seniors Abigail Rosenbaum and Helen Enghauser will provide depth, along with junior Iyanna Flores.
Two new assistant coaches, former ETHS standout Darcel Retreage and Sonia Harris, have joined the Wildkit staff replacing the departed Karis Stone.