With only one senior off a 19-win, playoff season in 2011-12, the Salem girls’ basketball team begins this season with high expectations.
Three games in, prior to Friday night’s matchup against Winder Barrow, which finished after press time, Salem is holding its own despite early setbacks.
The Salem Seminoles opened up the year with a victory over Meadowcreek, despite being without one of its key players, 6’2” sophomore Ayanna Mitchell. Mitchell was injured during the Region 8-AAAA tournament last season, missing the state playoffs, in which Salem lost the first round, and the early part of this season.
The Salem Seminoles and coach Rochone Dilligard expect her back this season, but are not sure when, only at a “point where there is still a lot of basketball to play.”
While Mitchell is expected back, another key player for Salem and one of four seniors, Danielle Thomas is not. Thomas recently signed a letter of intent to play at Florida Southern, after she suffered a season-ending injury in a 37-33 loss to Westside, Augusta on Nov. 17.
“(Going on to college) is the ultimate goal,” Dilligard said. “High School is the platform for the next level. I’m really proud and really happy for her.”
Joining Thomas and Mitchell on the sidelines for Salem’s matchup against Flowery Branch Tuesday was another key contributor in Shay Tarver. Tarver was back on the court for Friday’s game, but still left Salem without three solid players.
The Salem Seminoles lost Tuesday’s game 63-52 to the Falcons in the Region 8-AAAAAA opener, but were poised to get back on track in region play Friday.
To do so, Salem needs some players to step in for Mitchell and Thomas’ absence, especially in the rebounding department. Several players are up to the task, including Taylor King, who missed 2011-12 with a torn ACL, Nikkira Brown and Kamesha Rodgers.
“We’re going to have to continue with the things we have always done, playing really hard and an aggressive style,” Dilligard said. “(Thomas) was a big part of that and it’s going to have to continue. There are other kids capable of filling that void defensively. She brought a lot to us on rebounding and we’re going to have to go more collected effort to take care of that gap.”
Salem will fill the gap left by its missing forward and center, not necessarily by height but by continuing to work harder than the other team. That intangible is something Salem showed last season when it challenged for a region title and won its most games in two years.
“We don’t necessarily have bigger girls, but some really athletic guards,” Dilligard said.
“It’s not necessarily about height but rebounding is about heart. We have a lot of athletic guards who can fill that void.”
The Seminoles have just two non-region games remaining, against Rockdale and Meadowcreek in a busy 2012-13 schedule.
After the reclassification that took place following last season, Salem is in a bigger region, which leaves less games for a non-region schedule.
“We wanted to play a pretty big and tough out-of-region schedule, so we were prepared to play for region,” Dilligard said.
“Normally our region doesn’t start until January, but it is an adjustment you have to make. We wanted to play really good teams out of conference so when you walk into conference, you’re already hitting on all cylinders, but we’re ready.”