With a couple of potential starters still not fully recovered from injuries suffered last year, Evanston girls basketball coach Brittanny Johnson isn’t sure what to expect when the Wildkits open the 2022-2023 season at home on Tuesday against Bolingbrook.
But a slow start could be just what works for the Kits this year, especially if it leads to a bigger finish.
All signs point to a big second half for a program that welcomes back a strong veteran cast from last year’s 19-10 squad. And Johnson says that, when all hands are on deck, Evanston will definitely be a team to watch in the postseason.
But until seniors Taija Banks and Sofia Rocca – sidelined by knee injuries – are ready to go, the Wildkits will have to work even harder to find ways to win.
“When you have to worry about load management [playing time for rehabbing players] in the first week of the season, that’s not a great situation as a coach,” Johnson acknowledged. “We’ve had a lot of bad luck lately when it comes to these out-of-season injuries.
“But there will be a time when we get everybody back, and everyone will see just how good this team can be. They’ve all put in a ton of work trying to get better and I totally believe things are going to work out for us. I think January and February will be really, really good for us.”
The best-case scenario will find both Banks, a 5-foot 7-inch guard, and Rocca, a 5-10 forward, returning to action just after Thanksgiving. Banks had knee surgery last April and Rocca re-injured her knee at the end of the ETHS field hockey season after suffering a torn ACL prior to the start of her junior year.
Add junior standout Zuri Ransom’s fractured finger – which knocked the all-conference guard out of Evanston’s last game of last year, a 43-41 loss to Maine South in the sectional semifinals – and there are definitely question marks for an otherwise talented group.
“Taija and Sofia are both very needed for us to be successful,” Johnson said. “Taija has really had an injury-marred career [after playing on the varsity as a freshman] and I know it’s been hard for her. There was a pocket of the season [last year] where she really turned it on for us and I know she’s going to get back to that level. She has a good mid-range game with a really high basketball IQ, and she can make a variety of plays out there.
“Sofia gives us the ability to defend other teams’ bigs, and she showed us over the summer that her whole skill set is better. She’s strong and she’ll give us more of an inside presence when she comes back. She worked so hard to get in shape last year with her rehab, and it’s really disappointing for her, because she was well on her way to coming back [physically].”
Ransom, who averaged a team-best 12.9 points per game last season, will headline a starting lineup that should also include 5-8 junior Kailey Starks, 6-4 senior Ciara Gentle, and 5-7 junior Arianna Milam-Pryor. The other starting spot is up for grabs and may depend on matchups against various foes until Banks and Rocca are back.
Also challenging for playing time will be seniors Ivy Holub-Sanchez and Dafina Ukaj; junior Sydney Chow; sophomores Jayla Warren, Delila Liston and Alice Lemmon; and freshman guard Sandra Deeney.
“I expect to play a lot of kids again this year, and we’ll play a lot faster than we ever have here,” Johnson said. “I think playing fast is a better way to play the game. The younger girls are learning about pace, and when to slow things down, and right now they’re making a ton of mistakes. But there’s limited frustration for them, and I like that they’re learning how to deal with adversity and work through it.
“We’re all trying to figure out how to make this work – together.”
Ransom, the daughter of assistant coach (and former ETHS great) Travis Ransom, took her game to the next level as a sophomore and is poised to deliver even more this winter. “I believe that Zuri is one of the most underrated players in the state of Illinois,” declared her head coach. “No one really talks about her outside our area or our conference, but they should. Since last year she’s become a better ballhandler, a better shooter and a better finisher, and she’s always been a very good defender. She doesn’t have any [college] offers yet, but we’ve had a gym full of coaches checking her out.”
Starks flashed her potential with a 21-point outburst in that season-ending loss to Maine South after deferring to her teammates and passing up shots most of last year to focus on defense. Both she and Milam-Pryor have the potential for a double digit performance on any given night.
The key player for the Wildkits, however, might be the girl who is the tallest in program history. The 6-4 Gentle will take on a bigger leadership burden while serving mostly as a rim protector last year and averaging 7 points per game.
Johnson has taken the unusual step of designating Gentle as the player who will call out defensive signals when necessary. She’ll serve as the “quarterback” under a scheme where the Kits will employ a hybrid defense, a combination of zones and man-to-man.
“We played more zone last year than ever since I’ve been here, and I enjoyed watching them play defense. Sometimes you have to switch it up to keep other teams uncomfortable, and that’s what we’re going to do this year,” said the coach. “We’re going to try to do the unexpected, and create chaos on offense and on defense to keep other teams on their toes.
“Ciara can see everything as it develops from [on the back line] where she is, so that role makes the most sense for her. She really understands the game and she really understands what we’re trying to do on defense. And it’s helping her build some leadership qualities, too.”
After opening against perennial powers Bolingbrook (Nov. 15) and Whitney Young (Nov. 26), the Wildkits will return to the Grow The Game shootout at New Trier and will participate in the Lake Zurich Classic and the Morton College Holiday Tournament. Johnson also added a trip to a shootout event called “She Got Game” in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 13 and 14.
“There’s no fear in these girls. They wanted me to schedule even tougher teams and we did,” said Johnson. “Our schedule is actually a little harder than I wanted. That tournament in North Carolina seemed like a really good opportunity and I want to take trips like that every two or three years to help our program grow.”