On the South Decatur girls basketball team’s first day of practice, first-year head coach Jessica McConnell wore a Jac-Cen-Del Sectional championship shirt.
McConnell, who used the shirt as a motivational device for her team, said she believes South will snap JCD’s five-year sectional championship streak and return to Decatur County with its own trophy.
“We have a good chance to win sectional,” said McConnell, a 2004 South Ripley graduate. “Next year, when we win sectional, I want to wear our shirt.”
The journey began before last school year ended. McConnell was eager to meet the team and begin open gym during the summer. The second-year Kindergarten teacher, who played on a regional-champion team that also won three straight sectionals, wants to relate her playing experience with the Lady Cougars this winter. She was the Raiders’ team captain and won what she said was called the “Tiny Tim Award,” given to the best basketball player in Ripley County. She also played volleyball and softball.
“I want to show that I’ve experienced what they’re going through,” she said.
McConnell sees the same talent and abilities in the Lady Cougars, led by seniors Courtney Billinsgley, Ashley Johannigman and Julia Miller.
“The seniors have gotten stronger (mentally and physically), and they’re willing to do what they need to do,” said McConnell. “They can do it.”
The seniors have been mainstays in an up-and-down South program. The Lady Cougars went 6-15 after playing for three head coaches in the previous four seasons. Following a winning season, last year’s team struggled with just eight players without a junior varsity team.
The depth has doubled this year, with 16 girls now dressing for two teams.
Miller and Johannigman will play forward, while Johannigman will have a chance to set the school record for assists. McConnell said Johannigman is 30 assists from the mark and will be given opportunities to reach it.
Billingsley, junior Megan Niese and freshman Stacy Fox will rotate between the 1-, 2- and 3-spots as starters, with Fox running the point.
Also contributing at forward will be juniors Sydney Callahan and Olivia Watkins, who will both play some time on junior varsity and come off the bench at the varsity level.
“It will be a great opportunity for them to show they can shine,” said McConnell.
Rounding out the varsity roster is freshman Delanie Diekhoff, a 5-foot-10 center, and freshman guard Brooke Helms.
According to McConnell, the shooting guard and the small forward positions are still open.
“It will be good competition for the younger girls fighting for starting spots,” said McConnell.
The season begins at home Tuesday night against Class 3A Brown County. In a matchup sure to make things interesting, South will go up against first-year Brown County head coach Shane Billingsley – Courtney Billingsley’s father. Regardless of what happens on the court, though, McConnell said there will be no hard feelings.
McConnell, who lives in Westport and is engaged to get married, will be assisted by veteran coach Nancy Wamsley. Recently a varsity assistant for South, Wamsley has coached the fifth and sixth grade school teams the past five years.
McConnell brings high expectations to South and looks forward to being a positive role model for the players.
“I want to be an advocate for them,” she said. “That’s what a coach should be.”
Contact Nick Gonnella at (812) 663-3111, x7003.