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New Faces in New Places for ETHS Girls Cage Squad

Four players on the 2021 Evanston varsity girls basketball roster played on the freshman team last year.

Two players were in 8th grade.

Brittanny Johnson could coach at Evanston for another 20 years and not see more new faces from one season to the next.

Complicating matters further, the ETHS coach only has a 5-week season to work with, beginning on Saturday when the Wildkits host Vernon Hills in the 4 p.m. contest of a boys-girls varsity doubleheader.

Administrators in the Central Suburban League have put in place a doubleheader schedule consisting almost entirely of only league opponents, with the boys and girls alternating which varsity teams will play first. Only 50 spectators will be allowed in the stands, although ETHS fans can view all home games streaming on the National Federation of High Schools online network. Games will be broadcast on https://www.nfhsnetwork.com/schools/evanston-township-high-school-evanston-il.

Johnson faces a major rebuilding task after a senior-dominated squad captured the CSL South division championship and posted a 24-7 record while losing to the host team in the Class 4A Maine West Sectional tournament championship game.

She can’t wait to get started, even though the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the development of players everywhere in the off-season.

That makes for a level playing field but doesn’t make the task any easier.

“For any coach, this is the most unusual season in the history of basketball,” said Johnson. “The hardest part right now is that this is a brand-new team, with kids I’ve never coached who don’t understand the system. We’re trying to put in an entire system in 7 days.

“We have some kids who played freshman basketball last year and that’s a huge jump from there to the highest level.  And we like to provided summer camps and open gyms in the preseason so they can learn about each other and that’s a lot of what the off-season is really about. They didn’t have that opportunity this year.

“In a 5-week season (the Illinois High School Association end date is March 13th) people probably will be playing their best at the very end. But I’m excited that all the kids will finally be able to do something else after being on Zoom all year. And I’m really excited for the seniors.”

Evanston’s chances to repeat in the CSL South will start with senior guard Rashele Olantunbosun and junior Lola Lesmond. Only two other seniors, Amarii Mays and Ryann Lucas, made the varsity final cut and Mays barely got off the bench last year while Lucas didn’t play, focusing on her promising soccer career instead.

Olantunbosun, known as “Z”, figures to play a more prominent role with the ball in her hands more even as an off-guard. Committed to play at Knox College, she adds dash and flash in open-court situations and she and Mays both stepped up as leaders even with the uncertainty as to whether or not there would even be an actual season this winter.

“Last year was extremely hard for the (graduating) seniors and I think it’s been even worse for the Class of 2021,” Johnson pointed out. “But they’re taking it like champs. They stayed positive, led our virtual practices and validated what we were doing with the younger kids. They learned from some great leaders themselves, and it’s important to them to keep the tradition we built alive.

“Right now it’s a confidence thing with Amarii — she doesn’t know how good she is. She has a great shot, and I think she’ll surprise some people. And Z has also had to wait her turn behind some great players. She’s played in a lot of big moments and she understands what it takes to win.”

Lesmond, meanwhile, probably rates right now as one of the most improved players in the state of Illinois — for the second year in a row. The 6-foot French native barely spoke English when she arrived at ETHS, but now is an honor roll student and a workhorse as a player who has already received recruiting bids from a dozen Division I college programs.

She’s continued to expand her game from being a standout 3-point markswoman when she first donned the Orange and Blue and Johnson expects big things from the junior.

“She came back from the summer as a totally different player for the second year in a row,” said Johnson. “She really looks phenomenal. She struggled at the end of last season, but she took it to heart and worked hard to get better. She needed to get her game to the next level off the ball, and I think she’s done that. We’ll use her all over the court this year, from the 1 (point guard position) to the 5 (post). She’s taller and stronger and definitely more physical than ever before.

“I hope that chip on her shoulder never goes away. She’s the ultimate team player, and her ceiling is so high.”

Beyond those three players, Johnson’s not sure what her rotation will look like. But she’ll likely dig deeper into the bench this time around.

“We like to play fast, but these kids haven’t had a chance to work out much and we won’t have that capability like we’re used to,” she said. “We’re going to do a lot more subbing.  We’re just not in shape enough to do anything else.”

With sophomore Taija Banks (knee) sidelined for the entire season, and Warren transfer Dawson Wright also slowed by an injury, freshman Zuri Ranson will likely get first crack at the starting point guard position. Johnson also anticipates freshman Kailey Starks to earn major minutes, perhaps sooner than later.

“Kailey Starks is one of the quickest players I’ve ever seen,” said the coach, who played at Fenwick’s elite program in high school and also coached at the collegiate level. “Both freshmen will absolutely get meaningful minutes for us. Kailey is the Energizer Bunny — she’s all over the court — and I love kids with her type of motor. She fits what we do as a team really well.

“Zuri is a highly-skilled player and she could be our next big name in the future. She has great size (5-foot-10 inches) already, and she has the ability to handle it and shoot it, too.”

 Juniors Maggie Farragher and Ellie Oif have talent and the edge when it comes to knowledge of the ETHS system, and two sophomores to watch are 6-4 Ciara Gentle and 5-9 Sophia Rocca. They have the bloodlines to back up a stake to playing time, as Gentle is the younger (and taller) sister of two-time all-conference standout Ambrea Gentle, while Rocca is the daughter of ETHS Hall of Famer Mason Rocca.

Help will also come from juniors Jordan Lodge, Lulu Ward, Maya Wallace and Genesis Phillips.

“These young girls are the future of the program,” said Johnson, “and we’re going to use the next 5 weeks to build chemistry and their understanding of our way of doing things. I think we’re setting ourselves up to be that team we were last year. There’s so much teaching involved with this group — and I love teaching the game.”