By Tim Chambers
The talent, experience, and athleticism are there to make it a special basketball season for the Lady Longhorns. Now it’s time to prove that they are among the elite.
Johnson County won 14 games last year, including a win over Sullivan East in the District tournament yet fell one game short of reaching the regional, something they haven’t done in more than two decades.
All that could change this season.
The Horns return everyone including all five starters and their first two players off the bench from last year. Head coach Leon Tolley is optimistic yet cautious when talking about this year’s squad.
“We have the capability and mindset to be a good basketball team, but we have to get out of our comfort zone,” said Tolley. “You have to do that if you want to do things that you’ve never done before. If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you got. We have to be more physical and more up-tempo. If we’re ahead in the fourth quarter, we can’t start playing not to lose because we’re afraid that we’re going to win. This team has to play with some urgency.”
The Longhorns return all five starters that include seniors Taylor Cox, Taylor Parsons, and Natalie Winters along with juniors Emmy Miller and Sadie Stout.
There are high expectations for this quintet of players. Each of them knows their roles on the team, and they have set goals.
“Our goal is to get into the regional and make it to the state tournament,” said Cox, who led the team in scoring last year. “We’ve worked hard all three years, and we want to make a difference when it comes to girls’ basketball up here.
Parsons and Winters agreed with Cox and added their input.
“I like our closeness because we’ve all been together since middle school,” said Parsons. “We spend a lot of time with each other both on and off the court so we know one another like the back of our hand. We all want to see each other play well.”
Winters said this team was different than some of the other ones that she’s played on.
“We bond better together than the other teams we’ve been a part of in the past. There is a good chemistry among us, and you can feel it. We know each other’s strengths and try to use those to the best of our abilities. We’re good at reading each other and listening as to what we need to do to get better.”
Miller and Stout will also return as starters from last year.
“This team has a lot of ability, but now we have to make it work out on the floor,” said Miller. “I believe in our coaches and us. I think we can take this thing to the next level if we keep working hard.”
Stout agreed but wants to take this thing to unchartered waters.
“We know how to work with one another because we’ve played together since the fifth or sixth grade, and that’s a big help,” said Stout.”Seeing the boys play in the sub-state last year makes us want to be in that situation. I would really love to make the state tournament and play in Murfreesboro. That’s always been a dream of mine.”
The Longhorns should be deep on their bench with Cornett and Kleine. Tolley is also expecting Rhiannon Icenhour and Tiffany Price to give them some good minutes.
Cornett believes the bench has to play well in addition to the starters. She touched on one thing that they need to work on.
“I think we have a good offensive game, but we still need to work on our defense because we slack there some,” stated Cornett. “I feel like we have what it takes to make a run at the conference championship and advance into the regionals this year.”
Kleine knows what her role is on the team, and she’s ready to lend her assistance.
“I’m not the best shooter or defender, but I give it my all when they put me in. I hustle and play hard and hope to give our team a spark. I’m very comfortable with coming off the bench. “
That’s the type of mindset that Tolley needs from his squad. He feels like it’s time to finally earn all the accolades that have been given to them.
“I have heard for three years now how much talent this team has and potential. It’s time they step up and show it because everything is in place. All they have to do is go out and prove it on the floor. It might not always be pretty, but if we play up to our capabilities, then it could be a successful year.”
For the Lady Longhorns to be successful, all of them have to buy into the team concept. That includes putting the team before themselves and winning as their top priority.
“Last year, we had some team issues. This year our key phrase is family. If we can keep that mindset and nobody cares who scores or does what, then we can win. The first time that old green-eyed monster creeps in there, it could hurt. That caused us to lose four or five games last year, and I didn’t like it. I hope they learned from it and come ready to play every night.”
Tolley tabbed Sullivan Central as the team to beat along with Elizabethton. The Cougars return Wofford signee and 6’1 center Abby Crawford while the Cyclones return star players, Kaitlyn Bailey and Kaylen Shell.
“Central was the best team I saw all summer, and Elizabethton is right there with them. You know East will always be good, and Happy Valley with Shalyn Whitson will be a tough team. Everybody on our schedule is good, so we have no bye weeks. We’re better this year, but everybody else is as well. Nothing is going to be given to them. You don’t always get what you want. You have to go out and earn it.”