The list of opponents for Evanston’s girls basketball team this winter reads like a Who’s Who in the sport.
The Wildkit girls open the 2021-22 campaign on the road Tuesday, November 16, at Bolingbrook, a program that has won four Illinois High School Association state championships as part of eight trips to the Final Four overall.
And that’s just for openers. Blueblood programs like Geneva, Whitney Young, Edwardsville, Simeon and Fenwick are part of a grueling slate that will test head coach Brittanny Johnson’s young squad every night.
Evanston, like all of those heavyweights, is coming off a COVID-19-impacted “half-season” that actually ended in the spring portion of the calendar.
The Wildkits posted a 13-6 won-loss record in that five-week campaign and Johnson can’t wait for the 2021-22 opener now that things are back to normal – or what passes for normal. Players will still be required to wear masks during competition, but for both players and coaches that may seem like just a minor nuisance, considering that they almost didn’t have a season at all last year.
“We only had seven days to prepare for last season, and we played four or five games a week. We were glad to be able to do something, but you almost have to throw out what happened last season, considering the circumstances,” Johnson said. “We were a young team last year and we’ll be a young team again this year.
“When college coaches contact me [about recruiting] I tell them that I look at players according to their experience, not their grades. To me, juniors are still sophomores and sophomores are like freshmen. But I do know that now the young kids are more comfortable in our program and this will be more of a ‘real’ season.”
Johnson welcomes back a half dozen players who started games during that abbreviated season last year. But the team’s No. 2 scorer, Lola Lesmond, moved back to the East Coast with her family, and junior forward Sofia Rocca will miss the entire year after suffering a torn ACL and also injuring the meniscus in her knee in the off-season.
Lesmond, who has already committed to play at Yale, was one of the most improved players in the state last year and the Kits will have to find a way to make up for the scoring she could have provided, especially from 3-point range.
“We’ll have to do things by committee, and most of them understand what it takes to have a role as a rotational player after last year. This is exactly the way I like to coach, using a lot of players,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’ll have the same [starting] lineup all season. It will change, I know.
“We want to get back to running and playing at a fast tempo. We know we need to score the basketball this year. I know we’re going to be unbelievable on defense, but we know it’s not enough to just play unbelievable defense.”
Johnson, now entering her sixth year at the helm at ETHS, has always used her bench extensively. Last year, she didn’t have much choice, because injuries limited some players the Kits were counting on, even in that abbreviated campaign.
Guard Zuri Ransom missed the last half of the season with a broken finger, just as she seemed to be coming into her own as a freshman guard directing the offense. Guard Taija Banks was out with a knee injury until the last week of the season, and Dawson Wright played through a hamstring injury that left her less than 100% most of the year.
They’re all back this year – and they’re all still underclassmen. Add 6-foot-4 junior Ciara Gentle and a senior class that should provide plenty of leadership and Johnson believes that mix can be potent enough to challenge the “big girls” who will line up against the Wildkits every week.
Seniors Maggie Farragher (5-7) and Ellie Oif (5-9) are returning starters and the Class of 2022 also features Maya Wallace, Jordan Lodge and Lulu Ward.
“I really think the senior class has taken the brunt of this COVID thing,” Johnson pointed out. “They weren’t able to have much of a season last year. I remember when I saw them as freshmen I was really excited because I thought they were such unbelievable kids. Each one of them is a great leader.
“Maggie already has a college scholarship in lacrosse [at Delaware] and yet she still puts in as much time on basketball as she does on lacrosse. I think she and Ellie are both ready to break loose this year, because they know this is it for them. I really like the mindset the seniors have, to work hard and push the others to get better. I know they’re all really excited about the season.”
Wright, a 5-8 junior, is definitely a player to watch. She was a member of the ETHS 800-meter state championship relay team in track last spring and is a workout warrior who reported to preseason practices in elite shape.
“Last season Dawson tried to play hurt, and I probably shouldn’t have let her, because it hurt her confidence,” Johnson said. “She looks phenomenal. She needs to get better offensively, but I think that all comes down to confidence for her. She just has to get over that barrier.”
Gentle and Banks are two other juniors who also figure to be in the rotation at some point in the season, and the class also includes guard Dafina Ukaj and post player Ivy Holub-Sanchez.
Ransom heads the sophomore class, with Kailey Starks and Arianna Milam-Pryor also in the mix. Freshman Jayla Warren could back up Gentle in the post.
Ransom will be joined by her father, former ETHS star Travis Ransom, who has moved over to the girls varsity staff after coaching in the boys program for several years. It might just be because his daughter will provide “must-see” moments on a regular basis once she taps into her potential.
Johnson noted that some alums who played against Ransom over the summer believe she could be one of the best individuals in program history by the time she graduates. The 5-foot-10 guard has already drawn recruiting notice from schools like Illinois State, Marquette and Tulsa.
“I think Zuri has the potential to be a really special player, because she’s highly skilled, and she’s also willing to put in the work to get better,” said the Evanston coach. “I don’t think many people outside of our little bubble know much about her, but she’s getting a ton of Division I [college] interest after some of those coaches saw her in an open gym.
“Zuri’s a great shooter who can pass, rebound and dribble. She’s a really good playmaker who can make others look good. And that’s what we need, for her to involve her teammates, because the more she does that, the better we’ll be as a team.”
The veteran coach says she isn’t worried about her players’ collective psyche being too fragile to handle the daunting schedule that’s on tap. The Wildkits will play in a new Christmas tournament, at Morton College, and will also compete at shootouts at New Trier, Marshall and Benet Academy during the regular season.
“Bring them on!” Johnson said. “I believe in this team 100% and I wanted the opportunity for them to showcase themselves against the best teams in the state. We haven’t had a harder schedule than this one, where every game will be a challenge. But I think it’s important that they see this happen every night. Because in a year or two from now, we’ll look back on it and say this is the reason we are where we are.
“This will be a fun season and our kids can’t wait to play.”