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Posted: November 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Lady Rams poised for improvement after tough second half

Newton’s girl’s basketball team struggled in 2007. With an overall record of 6-17, the Lady Rams didn’t have much to celebrate about. But 2008 brings with it a renewed optimism.

Leading scorer Shay Marks is gone and Ke Ke Gaither returns as the lone senior. The youth has head coach Tiffani Johnson cautiously optimistic.

"We’re going to miss Shay," Johnson said. "Shay was very athletic. She was one of the best athletes we’ve had come through Newton in a while. She was a big scorer and a great leader and we’ll miss that, but we are starting to replace that with some of the players that are back including Q [Qaiserah Shariff]. She has been stepping up. It was a big loss to lose Shay but we’re making up for it."

The Lady Rams are young – five freshman young. But the youth adds a level of excitement and a fresh attitude to a team that suffered through several tough losses a year ago.

"I’m pleased with this group of freshman girls," Johnson said. "They are making the adjustments to the intensity of this level of play. I have been talking to our freshman about making the adjustments from middle school to high school and it’s been a little tough for them but I definitely see potential."

The adjustments will have to come on the fly. With Gaither and returning starter Qaiserah Shariff, the Lady Rams have experience at two positions and Chaconna Marks will help out on the interior. The freshman, led by recent transfer Sade Weaver, will certainly need to help as Newton will again play in the ultra-tough Region 2-AAAAA.

"All of them will probably see some playing time," Johnson said. "Out of the five, I expect Sade [Weaver] will be able to come in immediately and make an impact."

Part of the incoming class is from the group that won the championship last year at Clements Middle School.

Johnson is especially excited to welcome back Martice Hyman, who played as a freshman two years ago but left the team early last season. Johnson said the two have worked through last year's problems and she is expecting Hyman to be one of her main scoring threats and floor leaders.

"We worked some things out and she has come back with a completely new attitude," Johnson said. "She is ready to go 110 percent. She’s been a leader for us – being vocal and getting things going. I am looking at her to be our primary ball handler and she’s doing a great job being a leader. She’s turned it around 360 degrees from last year."

The Lady Rams will look to scoring by committee this year. Marks and Shariff led Newton last year with Marks relied on as the primary scorer. This season, Johnson knows she will need a well-rounded approach and each player will need to contribute to be successful.

"We are going to have to spread the scoring more evenly this year," she said. "We may have four or five girls average eight to 10 points per game. That’s a good thing because we are not relying on one person to handle the scoring load."

In the past, Newton’s struggles can be traced back to the reliance of a select few players. Johnson focus this year is to get everyone involved early so if an opponent shuts down one of her primary options, the Lady Rams still have players who can pick up the slack.

"I don’t want to have to worry if our post players are rebounding tonight or are my guards hot tonight, so I think it’s a good thing to be spread the wealth a little more this year," she said.

Newton will have to deal with the likes of Stephenson and Redan if it hopes to crack into the state playoffs. Both those schools pump out competitive teams each year. It won’t be easy. But one thing Johnson won’t have to worry about is commitment.

"One thing I didn’t have last year is everybody cheering for each other," Johnson said. "This year though, everyone is in it 110 percent. I think we’ll be a lot better off. Everyone is ready for the long haul. Everyone from my coaching staff on down to the 9th grade team is ready. Moral is up and I am excited about getting to the playoffs."

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