Coming off a state championship game appearance in 2018, the Newton Lady Rams took a step back in the 2018-2019 season as they fell in the first round of the state playoffs and finished their season with a 10-18 overall record and 4-8 record in region play.
The Lady Rams have a ton of returning talent and a promising young group that can provide quality depth throughout. When asked who the go-to player was for her Rams squad, head coach Tiffani Johnson was happy to say that there was not just one.
"That's the thing that I actually love about this team. There's no two main anything. I have two players that are more point guard-oriented, but as far as the stats go, I have no clue who is going to lead what, which is great because it makes us harder to be scouted," said Johnson. "Any given night, anybody can drop 20-25, so I'm anxious to see who steps up, and hopefully, it is somebody new every game."
One key player that Johnson is happy to get back is senior Je'nya Smith, who was sidelined last season with multiple ACL injuries. Johnson believes that although Smith was not able to up her game on the court, her ability to watch from the sidelines was beneficial.
"I think watching a season has helped her get smarter basketball IQ wise. Being on the bench and being around the coaches when we're talking and game planning, I think she has gained insight on when things need to happen and how they should," said Johnson. "I think she can be a returning asset for us once she gets her mobility back. She comes with a range of offensive threats. She can pass and shoot; she can handle the ball, so it'll just be the mobility, once she gets that back, we'll be ready to go."
Smith is joined by some other talented seniors that should all provide quality minutes and depth for the Lady Rams. Along with Smith, seniors Briyanna Thompson, Tijunna Freeman, Ashanti Wright, Maka'ya Cushion, and Alise Akridge all have an opportunity to crack the starting lineup.
With Rachel Hilliard graduating from last season's team, the Lady Rams frontcourt could be viewed as an area that may be a weakness. However, coach Johnson actually believes this could be a strength for this team with the length she has at the position, which is something she has not had in the past.
"This is the first time in a while that I've had a little bit of size. It's young size besides Briyanna Thompson," said Johnson. "Briyanna Thompson is coming back as a senior and more confident. This time we have a little height, it's just a matter of getting that game experience and confidence to be the banger and rebounder that Rachel was for us."
Cushion emerged as the Lady Rams primary ball-handler and facilitator, and her growth should be on the minds of all in attendance. Cushion played every minute in some games last year, but coach Johnson is hopeful that the depth will allow Cushion to stay fresh in games.
"She's a great leader and has a high motor. The good thing this year is she won't have to spend as much time on the floor and exhaust herself. Some games she played the whole game, and that's just hard to do with as energetic as she is," said Johnson. "With the bench that we have, I 'm looking for her to be more of a leader, more vocal with her experience. She's been great so far, so we're definitely looking for big things from Maka'ya."
This Lady Rams squad seems to be solid top to bottom, and Johnson has big-time expectations for her team and remains hopeful to get back to where her team was two years ago.
"The goal, of course, is to go as far in the postseason as possible, but our short-term goal is chemistry. Finding matchups and groups of girls that play well in this scheme together so early on we're trying to find our rhythm," said Johnson. "Of course, winning the region championship and moving on to state playoffs is the ultimate goal."
Johnson knows that there is always room for improvement with any team, and it seems that chemistry played a part in where she is looking for the most growth to achieve those goals.
"Our offensive decision-making, defensively we are fine, and athletically we are good. It will just be that chemistry on offense and making the decision at the right time," said Johnson.
The depth of this Lady Rams squad should make them a tough team to deal with against any competition they face and should make them one of the more formidable teams in AAAAAAA.
The Lady Rams will get their season started on the road on November 9th against the Morgan County Bulldogs at 5:30 pm.