On paper, the Houston High School girls basketball team appears to have the ingredients for success in the 2020-2021 season.
But Lady Tigers head coach Brent Kell knows points are scored and defense is played between the lines on a court, not on paper.
“We’ve got a lot of potential,” Kell said. “The problem with potential is you still haven’t arrived and you have to work hard every day to realize that potential. We have a lot of natural athletes, now we have to make those into basketball players. In order to do that, we have to be coachable, have good attitudes and buy into what we’re trying to do.
“I feel like so far, we’re doing that.”
Last year with Jim Moore as head coach and Kell as an assistant, the HHS girls finished at 8-17 overall and 1-6 in the South Central Association, and were defeated 53-48 by Liberty in the first round of the Class 3 District 4 tournament.
“We didn’t win a lot last year,” Kell said, “but we had five or six losses by about 3 to 5 points where we were ahead for much of the game. We had a pretty good summer and I feel like we’re right there.”
Kell said he’s been having his players focus on becoming more of a tightly-knit unit and building a family atmosphere in the locker room.
“We’re working on the psychology of the game,” he said, “as far as believing in each other and having confidence in each other. I feel like we’re on the right track for where I would visualize us to be.”
The Lady Tigers return every starter from last year’s squad and several other players who saw significant minutes. Kell said he expects to use as many as 10 players on a regular basis, and will have it his disposal a couple of seniors (forward Riley Scheets and guard Jaden Stell), a junior (Hannah Dzurick) and several sophomores (including guards Aliyah Walker and Katie Chipps, forwards Karlee Curtis and Olivia Crites and post players MacKenzie Bryan and Rhease Manier).
New to the roster, but expected to be a key to Houston’s success, is freshman guard Angie Smith.
“She’s going to be a surprise to a lot of people who haven’t seen her play,” Kell said. “And she’ll be on the floor a lot.”
Kell said Crites has improved to the point where she figures to be a force on both ends of the floor.
“She has a lot of confidence,” Kell said. “She has really turned it on; she’s scoring, rebounding and blocking shots, and playing really well. She’s going to surprise a lot of teams in the area because she has that ability.”
The Lady Tigers aren’t blessed with a lot of height (although 6-foot junior Sarah Purcell is in the mix), so Kell figures his team will have to play an up-tempo style with him substituting freely to keep fresh legs on the floor.
“We’re going to play as hard and fast as they’ve ever played,” Kell said. “We can’t just stay in a half-court set and beat teams that have bigger girls than us – they’ll pound us inside and on the boards – so we’ve got to use our athleticism and try to speed teams up.
“But we can do multiple things with this team because of the variety of skill sets we have and the depth we have.”
The Lady Tigers will likely employ almost continuous full-court defensive pressure when games aren’t yet decided.
“We’ll do that until the game is out of hand, one way or another,” Kell said. “We’ll probably utilize three different types of presses, depending on who we’re playing.”
As yet, Kell hasn’t settled on a starting lineup.
“I’ve told the girls I don’t care so much who starts, but who’s on the floor at the end of the game, because I know those are the people who are going to step up and make free throws in pressure situations, take good shots, play good defense and rebound, and who aren’t going to fade when the pressure is on.”
Kell is back at the helm of the Lady Tigers after retiring in 2016 following a 30-year stint as the program’s leader. During his first tenure, he compiled a record of 428-306 and guided teams to six South Central Association conference championships and two district titles. After getting out of coaching for a few years, he returned to the sidelines last season and worked with Moore (who is now the HHS boys head coach).
Kell said preseason practices have been energetic and competitive, as the team’s numerous talented players jockey for positions and playing time.
“Everybody’s working really hard and really getting after it,” he said. “We’ll see how that translates into game situations.”
The Lady Tigers hosted a preseason game on Tuesday of this week against Plato. They will begin their season by being in the field at the Fordland Invitational tournament that begins Monday, Nov. 30 and concludes Saturday, Dec. 5.
Kell said he hopes his team’s games are attended by lots of Houston fans – even on the road.
“I think people will enjoy watching the style these girls play with like what they see,” he said. “We’ll take some lumps, but we’re going to be really competitive. We’re going to respect everybody, but we’re not going to fear anybody.”