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2009-2010 Basketball: Salisbury girls preview

By Ronnie Gallagher
rgallagher@salisburypost.comAfter going 29-3 and winning the 2A state championship, the Salisbury girls have only one thing in mind: repeating.
The Hornets lost five seniors, including current college players Shi-Heria Shipp, the county player of the year, as well as De’Rya Wylie and Kia Rice. But Salisbury looks just as good.
Maybe better, if that’s possible.
Coach Andrew Mitchell still has the speedy players, but he has added height in 6-foot-2 transfer Olivia Rankin and 5-11 up-and-comer Jessica Heilig to a mix that includes Ayanna Holmes, Ashia Holmes and Bubbles Phifer.
“It’s a blessing to be the coach here,” said Mitchell, who came over last year after a long tenure as the women’s coach at Livingstone College. “Everybody gets along, they’re talented and they’re very coachable.”
It all starts with a senior in Phifer who is in her fourth season as a varsity member. She averaged 13.3 points last season and was named MVP of the state championship game, a 56-41 win against Graham.
“I expect strong leadership and a good attitude from her,” Mitchell said. “She understands the things a leader goes through. She has to go hard all the time.”
Phifer had 15 points in the title game and hit double figures a team-high 24 times. She did it within the framework of the team.
“Our offensive system is set up for everyone to get involved,” Mitchell said.
The Holmes twins, Ayanna and Ashia, are senior starters. Ayanna is the point guard while Ashia is a slasher. Ayanna (6 points per game) and Ashia (5 points per game) should increase their scoring.
Ayanna is learning a new position at the point.
“All her life, she’s played the 2 or 3, but she handles the ball well,” Mitchell said. “She recognizes things. We want pass first. Get the ball in the hands of the best percentage shot. We want to score pretty quickly and get the ball upcourt in four seconds or less. But we want her to also slow down sometimes and get into our offense.”
Mitchell said Ashia spent a lot of time working on her game. She was an all-conference and all-county player last season who is moving to the small forward spot.
“She’s kinda amazing to me,” Mitchell said. “She’s really coming on.”
Mitchell was getting reports on the twins over the summer.
“They spend a lot of time at the YMCA,” he said. “If there’s an open gym, they’re there.”
The X-factor may be Rankin, who was a key player for East Rowan the past two seasons. She brings an inside presence to go with her fast-breaking teammates.
“A concern was if she’d have problems with conditioning and footwork,” Mitchell said. “But she has improved her speed.”
Mitchell said Rankin feels comfortable in any set Salisbury runs.
“She sits down in the post, big and wide,” Mitchell said. “She has good hands and a soft touch.”
Another transfer, junior Tori Woods, arrives from a strong program at Concord, which won a state title two years ago. Her father is an AAU coach. She’s listed as the backup point guard.
“She’s a solid player who does things you can’t coach,” Mitchell said of the junior. “She already understands the system.”
Senior Lacresha Young has made improvements to her game and has a nice outside shot, according to Mitchell.
“And she’s got defensive potential,” he said.
Mitchell expects Heilig, a junior, to burst onto the scene. She didn’t get much playing time last season but has improved dramatically after a summer of AAU and showcase ball.
“She may be the most athletic player we have,” Mitchell said. “She can run and jump and I’m impressed with her maturity. She takes the game seriously. It’s just great to see that joy.”
Playing volleyball helped junior Isis Miller improve her timing and leaping.
“She’s very strong,” Mitchell said. “Once she gets in her mind to be a beast, she’ll be better.”
With a smile, Mitchell added, “I’m afraid she’ll hurt somebody.”
The two leading scorers from jayvee, sophomore Doreen Richardson and junior Najwa Allison, bring depth.
“Doreen’s a super athlete,” Mitchell said. “She amazes me. She’s working on basic fundamentals and instincts. She always seems to know where the ball is.
“Najwa’s fast and a pretty good shooter,” Mitchell added. “But her thing is defense. She anticipates very well. She steps in the passing lanes and gets steals.”
If Salisbury wins a state title, it will be the third of Hannah Lebowitz’s senior year. She has an individual and team tennis championship to her credit as Salisbury’s No. 1 player.
“She learns so fast,” Mitchell said. “She really wanted to give basketball a shot. If we win, it will be her sixth championship ring.”
Rankin is not the tallest Hornet; Eboni Feamster is. And the 6-3 junior is a project Mitchell is excited about.
“She’s a raw talent,” he said. “We’ll bring her along slowly. She can rebound and block shots. We’re excited about her. She has what you can’t teach: height.”
One thing Mitchell loves to point out is that this team isn’t just athletic. It has smarts.
“All of them are over 3.0,” he said of the team’s GPA. “We don’t have study hall. We want them to be independent and self-motivated. I tell them, ‘It’s what you do when I’m not there.’ ”
Mitchell said he still sees East Davidson as his biggest roadblock to winning the Central Carolina Conference. He likes Central Davidson’s improvement.
But those teams know the road to the title runs down Lincolnton Road.
Brains, brawn, speed, fundamentals, confidence Oó it will probably mean doomsday for most of the teams Salisbury plays.
“It makes my job easy,” Mitchell smiled.

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