GIBSON CITY - An even combination of youth and experience is the story of the Lady Falcon basketball team this year.
Four seniors with a strong amount of experience are joined in the starting unit by a sophomore with a ton of potential.
Meanwhile, the first three players off the bench are freshmen with a winning resume from their middle school careers.
It’s a passing of the torch, from a group with three years of varsity playing time to a group of underclassmen whose talent is way ahead of its age.
And guiding them along the way is a second-year coach who hopes a year’s worth of experience under her system will increase the team’s chemistry.
“We’ve come a long way. I think it’s easier this year,” Falcon coach Mindy Whitehouse said. “They already know the plays and kind of know the intensity.”
With four senior starters, Whitehouse hopes that leadership is another side effect of the experience-laden group looking to take the underclassmen under their Falcon wings.
“When you have that many seniors, surely one of them will step up,” Whitehouse said. “So that’s a huge strength.”
As far as weaknesses, Whitehouse said the defense will be the biggest key and need for improvement as the year goes along.
“We have to buy into this (concept of) defense wins games, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said. “We’re going to lose a lot of games if we can’t play man-to-man defense and box out.”
Whitehouse sees the talent, however, and believes the issue is more mental than learning the system.
“I think it’s a mentality thing,” she said. “Defense is hard work, and I don’t want to downplay them, because these girls really do get at it. They have to prioritize what is more important, defense or offense. And that’s where we are at right now.”
Sophomore Addy Nugent makes up the fifth starting spot after playing a lot as a freshman.
“She’s probably one of the most athletic girls I have,” Whitehouse said. “Her biggest downfall is mentally she’s very tough on herself. I can get her under control. Last year I was really really tough on Addy; everybody knows that. But Addy responds well to constructive criticism. The more I push her, the better she is. I think it just took her a year to get used to that. She’s really athletic, and I have to push her. I’m not doing her any justice if I don’t.”
Freshmen Makenzi Bielfeldt, Megan Moody and Claire Retherford enter this season a year removed from leading their eighth grade team to third at state and will be called upon to contribute immediately.
“I explained to the seniors, it’s their starting position. They’re seniors; they’ve earned it," Whitehouse said. "Whether they keep it or not is up to them, because I don’t have a problem starting a freshman over a senior. Those are three talented freshman.”
Whitehouse called Bielfeldt her current leader on the court, citing her outgoing personality and attention to detail as reasons for her rise.
“Our leader on the court right now is a freshman: Makenzi,” Whitehouse said. “She’s got no problem talking. She’s got no problem putting her people where they need to be. Coach Whitehouse can take her out and chew on her and know that the response is going to be just that. She does all the little things. I think her last focus on the game is scoring. I don’t think she cares if she scores all night long. I think she gets (my defense). She can run the court. She can handle the ball. She can shoot the ball, and she can box out. She’s athletic and just a great basketball player. She knows the game. But most importantly, she’s a great leader. I saw that last year as an eighth grader.”
Megan Moody is another solid option as a point guard and has the height and skill set to be plugged into any position needed.
Mikayla Baillie, Madi Thompson, Claire Schmitt and Amber Wittemann make up this year’s senior group.
Baillie is a third-year starter whose overall skill set makes her extremely dynamic.
After a year as the team’s starting point-guard during her sophomore campaign, she was moved to power forward last season while Wittemann took the reigns as the team’s one-guard.
With Baillie's ball-handling skills, the combination of her and Wittemann bringing the ball up the court creates a double point guard look that opens a number of options for the Falcon’s evolving offense.
“I had this talk with (Amber) last year, and she is the one-guard,” Whitehouse said. “I don’t know that she absolutely wanted the one-guard. Amber is like Addy, she’s tough on herself. Everybody responds differently to the coach. It took me about half a year to figure her out.”
Part of Wittemann’s earning of the point guard position was talent and work ethic. Another was her pass-first mentality coupled with her willingness to take the big shot.
“She’s our catalyst,” Whitehouse said. “When she goes, she Ds up and plays hard, and everybody else buys into it.”
The other two seniors, Madi Thompson and Claire Schmitt, have played a high volume of minutes in the post over the past three seasons, and coach Whitehouse is hoping this is their strongest season physically.
Thompson is one of the more athletic girls in recent GCMS memory, and Whitehouse has been impressed with the work ethic of both her and the returning MVP, Schmitt.
“Madi has worked really hard in the offseason,” Whitehouse said. “Claire was our MVP last year, and I think she’s come on really strong.”
“I think she was the most consistent all year long (last year),” Whitehouse continued. “I think she really bought into (my defense). When I got fired up and wanted the team to respond, it was her. She really bought into it physically and mentally.”
When asked about the keys to success this season, Whitehouse said there are only two.
“That is leadership and learning how to play defense,” she said.