Normally when a coach starts three or more freshman its by default and that team is probably in for a long season filled with a lot of mistakes. Newton’s girls basketball team starts three freshmen, but is off to an 8-2 start this season and they’ll only get better with time.
Of the 15 or so players on the team, five are freshman: Alexcia Chatman, Eryianna Card, Jurnee Smith, Takiya Cotton and Asia Hyman. Three of them – Chatman, Card and Smith – are starters and have had a significant impact on the team.
“I’m going to put the best player on the floor at all times. If that happens to be a freshman that’s what it is,” Tiffani Johnson, Lady Rams’ head coach, said. “I’m not one of those coaches who thinks a grade level determines your playing time. It’s been great to have young kids out there getting experience in now, so the older they get the better the get. I’m happy with being able to have a young group out there.”
Each freshman brings something different to the game. Johnson says that all five have managed to transition seamlessly from middle school to high school.
“Chatman’s a high motor kid. She’s on go for the most part, and she’s always looking to put the ball in the basket. She gives us a lot of offense but she gives us a lot of steals as well. She does a great job jumping in the passing lanes,” Johnson said.
“I love Jurnee because she’s even keel,” Johnson added. “She’s not out of control and she doesn’t make too many bad decisions. She gives us a good solid ball handler out there who’s going to take control. She rebounds, she goes hard and she’s consistent.”
“Then we have Erianna Card who can jump out of the gym – she’s a beast on the boards. She has great on-ball defense. She gives us some energy and she runs the lane,” Johnson said.
More times than not with young teams there are lots of hiccups and with those hiccups come lots of losses, but not for Newton. In their last four games the Lady Rams are 3-1, winning three games (Alcovy, Tucker and Eastside) by a total of five points and losing to Salem 60-59.
The close games aren’t the ones you’re supposed to win if you’re a young team, especially when you have three freshmen on the floor and you’re playing a veteran-laden Tucker team that won a state championship last year. Still, Newton beat them and they probably wouldn’t have pulled it out without Smith and Chatman’s excellent plays down the stretch on both ends of the court.
“All three of them can do a little bit of everything and that’s why they’re on the floor,” Johnson said. “They’re smart kids as well. In the classroom, all five of the freshman for the most part have great grades. It’s been a pleasure coaching them because they bring so much to the table.”
Cotton and Hyman don’t see the court as much, but both are promising young players. Cotton is small even for a point guard, but Johnson says all she needs to do is get in the weight room and she’ll be more than OK.
Although they’ve been playing well, with Chatman being one of Newton’s leading scorers, Smith making plays in crunch time and Card’s defense and rebounding. The scary thing – at least for everybody they’ll play over the next four years – is that they’re only going to get better.
Some things Johnson says that all of her freshmen need to get better at decision making on the floor, especially in tight game situations, but she knows that it’s going to come with time.
Johnson says the middle school game is different from the high school game. She said that the players are used to just trying to be the fastest person on the court and the player that shoots the most shots, but Johnson says she’s trying to get them out of that mindset to slow down and think on a varsity level.
With that comes running more plays, more strategy and being able to understand why they play the way they play. Johnson says the girls have caught on quickly, but there’s still room to grow even while they’re winning.
“It’s been a great motivator,” Johnson said when asked how winning affects her young players. “It keeps them hungry, it keeps them wanting to learn more and do more. Them being athletically talented has made up for what they don’t know mentally, so far.”