WINNSBORO — Last year the preseason talk on the street surrounding the Richard Winn Academy girls basketball team was whether the girls would overcome the graduation of Alex Maas and have a playoff level season.
RWA answered that question and more, winning the AA SCISA State Championship for the first time since the late 1980s. This season with all but two players back from last year’s team, the word on the street is anything less than a repeat will be a disappointment.
Don’t tell that to Coach Jason Haltiwanger or the girls in his program though.
While quick to point out his players are having to learn to handle success, Haltiwanger said he does not want his players to approach the season differently than they did a year ago.
He is adjusting his schemes once more to fit his talent. Haltiwanger is looking for new wrinkles on defense, such as switching to a 1-3-1 zone defense made popular by Michigan.
With two fewer players on the team he knows they will pull up at least one middle school player to the varsity. Another will play middle school games but be available for varsity games if needed.
“Callie Thigpen gives us 10 players for practice,” he said, “and her role is important to us (as it the role of every player on the team).”
Haltiwanger said he looks forward to some of the AA rivalries and to rematches with opponents who no doubt worked all off season to get ready to try and knock off the defending champs.
“This is the toughest year for me coming into coaching in some ways due to the unique challenges and leadership dynamics on this team,” he said.
He knows it is up to him and to the team leaders to make sure the players have a hunger for success and don’t just rest on their laurels from a season ago.
“Jessie Stidham is our most improved player,” he said. “She worked hard all summer on her outside game to go with her inside game. Stidham developed better ball handling skills and he said she has a consistent three point shot now thanks to her hard work.”
Now he feels like Stidham can play the center, forward and small forward spots for RWA. Haltiwanger said she even could run point some if needed.
RWA has solid depth at point guard with freshman Alyssa Atkerson returning from a season ago. Senior guard Carson Justice could play point or play shooting guard, similar to how she did last season in tandem with Atkerson.
Haltiwanger said the leadership on his team remains a work in progress. He spends time talking to them about 11 championship killers and ways they need to guard against complacency.
“I think we are doing well so far in practice. It’s hard to measure where we are because of the new things we are trying. You don’t really know about that until you see other competition,” he said. “I guess we will be as prepared as any other team when our season tips off though.”
He hopes that his players will once again buy into his coaching style and embrace their roles on the team, whatever those roles might be. This year the schedule contains some non-conference challenges such as a game with AAA public school power Union County High School.
RWA hosts a tournament where they likely could play the Fairfield Central High School girls team in the semifinals. They also play against SCISA AAA school Hammond Academy and opened up their scrimmage season with a three-way scrimmage against Mid-Carolina High School last week.
Haltiwanger said his team will continue to run set plays and continual motion offenses, similar to last year. He will draw up some quick hit scoring plays as well, when needed.
He said Bailey Taylor and Emily Brigman are emerging as solid outside shooting threats. Atkerson has more range to her jumper, something he credits to increased strength. She is stronger now and can shoot a three-pointer instead of just push it, he said.
Haltiwanger said his team will miss the depth it had a season ago. But though they have small numbers, one advantage the Eagles have is team chemistry. Many of the girls have played together for two to three years now. RWA brings back its starting five plus a few key reserves.
“We need to stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble,” Haltiwanger said. “So, we’ll use spot on the ball pressure and go to zone defense to protect ourselves from foul trouble,” a change from last year’s team with an often relentless frenetic pace on defense.
Regardless of style of play and of wins and losses, Haltiwanger continues to ask his players hold one another accountable and be true champions by focusing on the Lord who gave them the talent to play to the best of their ability.
“True champions play for the ultimate champion,” he said. “Rather than focus on winning a championship, that puts enormous pressure on them (and we could sense that happening even in practice).”
This perspective, he feels, will benefit his players in life on and off the court. If they make a mistake, if they do not win, will they have failed? I don’t believe that because if they prepare for and play as hard as they can for God, they will be winners.
Haltiwanger said that approach starts with him as coach.
“If I get into must-win championship mode, that’s selfish,” said Haltiwanger, a leader in Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Richard Winn. “Instead I have to coach every moment for Him. I want my players to feel that freedom to go out, have fun and perform as hard as they can for Christ.”