BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Russell has said goodbye to the central figures from a three-season stretch that included 71 victories, three 63rd District titles, three trips to the 16th Region Tournament semifinals and the 2016 region title.
If Mandy Layne has anything to say about it, that doesn’t mean the region is saying sayonara to the Lady Devils as contenders.
“I’m pretty excited, because I think people think we’ve leaned on that experience,” Layne said. “I’m excited as a coach and I think the kids are excited to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here.’ “We’re projected probably to be a little lower than we have been the previous couple years, and we’re pretty pumped up to show that, no, we’ve not gone anywhere and we’re just as good as we usually are.”
In that endeavor, Russell will lean heavily on a pair of seniors who are no stranger to varsity time, but will be asked for greater production and leadership with Madison Darnell, Ty Mitchell and Rachel Michael having graduated.
Lakie Sanders averaged 11.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last winter in the post, making her the Lady Devils’ leading returner in each category.
McKenah Morris’s impact was more defensive, although she did chip in 2.4 ppg and 1.6 rpg last season in a reserve guard role.
Both seniors are ready for their turn to lead Russell on the floor.
“We’ve always looked up to older girls, and it’s nice to be looked up to,” Morris said. “(Younger players) think a lot of us, and they really respect us, and we respect them.” For Sanders, playing against the likes of Darnell and Maggie Jachimczuk, a 2017 Russell graduate, in practice helped her prepare for this moment.
“It helped me to be ready to be a leader, too,” Sanders said. “Having Madison, she was a really strong post player, and I feel like that’s helped me, too.”
Russell must replace 31.3 points and 9.7 boards a night from its departed trio. Layne thinks the return of sophomore Aubrey Hill to full strength from a torn ACL in February 2017 will aid greatly.
Hill played in 26 games last year and notched 5.1 ppg and 4.6 rpg, but hasn’t gotten back to 100 percent until now, Layne said.
“I don’t know if I’ve coached a more athletic kid that can jump and literally block shots out on the 3point line,” Layne said. “She can block shots against the backboard; she did two yesterday (in an early-November practice). When she’s at full speed, she’s really explosive. ... I think she’ll definitely make a difference on both ends of the floor.”
Sophomore point guard Kaeli Ross is Russell’s second-leading returning scorer, with 6.9 ppg last season.
“I look for her to have a breakout season,” Layne said of Ross. “She’s a super good shooter off the bounce, can drive it well and ball-handling skills have greatly improved. I see her being a top-10 player before it’s over.”
Hill will join Sanders in the post. Layne said Sanders has increased her strength and her range.
Junior Malia Blevins, a projected starter, fits Darnell’s mold with her versatility.
“She can post and she can shoot the 3,” Layne said, and the coach added she will probably do some of both.
Morris will fill the defensive-minded guard role where Mitchell excelled, Layne said.
“She’s always been really good on the defensive end,” Layne said of Morris. “I think she’s really gonna embrace that role. She’s your utility player, and she’ll do whatever is needed on defense, getting on the ground for loose balls, just the little things that you need to be successful.”
The core of last year’s 173 junior varsity team will also help, Layne said. Sophomore Kylee Arthur and freshman Campbell Jachimczuk — yes, she’s Maggie and Charlie’s sister — add depth down low.
Twin freshmen Lindsay and Casey Wallenfelsz are both “great ball-handlers,” and sophomore Alyssa Maynard and junior Bryanna Gillum are “both really good shooters off the bench,” the coach said.
Seventh-grade point guard Shaelyn Steele is “super quick, super dynamic, super athletic,” Layne said. She’ll help, as will junior Kate Ruggles and senior Abby Satterwhite, fresh off fall seasons with Russell’s volleyball and soccer teams, respectively. Layne looks for the latter duo’s impact to be mainly defensive and added Ruggles can shoot, too.