SPRING GARDEN – There’s a sign that used to hang in Spring Garden basketball coach Ricky Austin’s office that said “Pay attention to small details.” They’re words he’s tried to live by, both on and off the court.
It’s a phrase that hit home last season with the Lady Panthers’ 72-65 overtime loss to Pisgah in the Class 2A Northeast Regional final, ending their season at 32-3.
“You can always dissect different parts of the game. You can dissect turnovers or bad plays, bad shot attempts, and say that was the difference in the game, but what I learned out of (the Pisgah loss) was you better be good at the small details,” Austin said. “Even though we were so close in that game, small details probably hurt us in the very end of it.
“That’s what we’ve been focused on this year, trying to dribble, pass, and shoot, and understand the game. There’s always growth and improvement needed in those areas. If we continue to do that all year, then I think we’ll be competitive as the year goes on.”
The attention to details haven’t been perfect for the Lady Panthers yet in the early part of the 2021-22 basketball season, but they’re off to a 3-0 start with wins over Jacksonville, White Plains and Oxford in the Champions Academy Thanksgiving Classic.
But finely-tuned details are something Austin feels will come the more times the Lady Panthers take the court.
“I think we’re going to be fine once we get reps in us and get some more games in us,” he said. “We most definitely need games. We’ve practiced for three weeks and we need games to be able to get this going in the direction we want it to. Even though we’ve won some games already, they haven’t been real pretty. I’m not disappointed in that. They’re listening. They’re playing hard. We’ve got a learning curve going on a little bit. It’s just patience on my part and patience on their part. We’ll get this thing put together. I’m thinking by about Christmastime we’ll know a little more about who we are and what we’ve got. I think we know what we’ve got. We’ve just got to dig in a little deeper and shape it, and that’s up to us coaches.”
Of course it helps to have five seniors shape a basketball team. That’s the number the Lady Panthers have this season, which include forward/center Neely Welsh, guards/forwards Abbey Steward and Sarah Kate McKay, and guards Bri Boles and Abbie Woods.
“Neely Welsh had a great season last year. We’re expecting her to be the same in every category – scoring, rebounding, assists, defender, leader, motivator. We expect her to be better at it. That’s kind of what we’re working with on her,” Austin said.
“Abbey Steward, Abbie Woods, Bri Boles, Sarah Kate McKay all have experience. Abbie Woods and Bri Boles are the two with the least amount of playing time as far as seniors, but the emphasis at practice so far for them is it’s their time. The seniors with experience have got to continue to maintain and do what they do, but those two seniors need to step it up. We’ve been coaching them hard in practice and the games we’ve had. We expect them to step it up. All five of our seniors are critical. The ball is going to be in their hands a lot.”
The Lady Panthers should get a shooting boost from junior guard Kayley Kirk, who the majority of last season with a knee injury. Austin said Kirk had a great summer and is “focused and determined” to make a comeback.
“She doesn’t seem to be thinking about her knee injury at all,” Austin said. “When you sit out a year like that, it takes a while to get the rhythm back. It’s going to take her a few games to get back to what Kayley Kirk is capable of doing, but we’re going to continue putting the ball in her hands a lot and let her make plays for us because she can.”
But perhaps the most vital player the Lady Panthers return this season is freshman guard Ace Austin. Coach Austin’s daughter was an all-state performer as the Lady Panther point guard. She averaged 16.6 points, 7.4 assists and seven rebounds last season.
“We expect her to elevate her game,” Coach Austin said. “Being a freshman, there’s plenty of room for growth, even though she had a great year last year. She or myself are not just pleased and satisfied that she got a lot of accolades and recognition. That’s great and well deserved. She’s worked hard, but we’re not playing just for that. We’re playing to be a better player every day. We want to be better today than we were yesterday, just like every other girl on this team.
“We probably want her to step her scoring up a little more just because she can, and it will help others around her by carrying a bigger load in that category. Defensively, she’s still got to get a little better. Every night we step out on the court, she’s going to have the ball in her hands a lot and she’s going to be guarding somebody good because we need her to.”
In addition to Ace Austin’s youth, Coach Austin expects to get production out of sophomore guard Maggie Reedy, sophomore guard/forward Libby Brown, freshman guards Avery Steward, Olivia Law, Kristen Lewis, freshman forward/center Maggie Jarrett, and eighth grade forward Montana Highfield.
“As whole, we do have a lot of pieces. We’ve just got to be patient,” Coach Austin said. “We’ve got some challenges in our schedule early. We’ve got some tough stuff coming. I feel like it’s going to make us better. We’ve got be healthy and have to stay healthy. We’re looking forward to the challenges in front of us. Mostly we’re looking forward to what this group wants to accomplish on their time and what they want their legacy to be. To see how they grow into that as the season goes on, that’s what I get excited about. They have an opportunity to do some things if they want to. I’m anxious to see that side of growth in them.”
While the Lady Panthers have already gotten their season underway, the Panther boys won’t get started until Monday evening at home against Cleburne County. That’s because they’re coming off another deep playoff run in football.
“We’ve just had no gym time. It’s been tough,” Coach Austin said. “We’re really rusty, out of rhythm, out of synch, but the attitude and effort has been great. It’s where it needs to be. As long as they maintain that and let me worry about knocking the rust off of them, we’ll eventually get there.”
Rust isn’t the only thing the Panthers (19-11 in 2020-21) have to deal with. Senior guard/forward Chaz Pope and senior guard Andrew Bates are still recovering from injuries suffered in football season. Pope is battling back from a broken leg and Bates from a torn ACL.
“When those two guys get back it’ll help a lot,” Coach Austin said, who noted both are practicing in limited roles right now.
Injuries aside, Coach Austin feels the key to getting the Panthers going is senior point guard and his son, Cooper Austin.
“It starts with the point guard,” Coach Austin said. “He’s got to get some rhythm going before we all can get rhythm going. He turned into a really great playmaker in football for us, and he’s got to become more of a playmaker in basketball for us. He understands that, and his teammates know that. He’s going through a learning curve right now. We’re going to be doing a few things different with him.”
Another senior guard vital to the Panthers’ strategy is Andrew Floyd. Coach Austin noted Floyd had a great summer on both ends of the floor. It’s just going to take him a little while to get over the soreness from football.
“It’s a great group of seniors who have been with me for a long time,” Coach Austin said. “We’re going to make it the best we can. We’re not worried about wins and losses to a point where it will affect us. We know bigger things are in front of us.”
Speaking of bigger, the Panthers will feature something Austin hasn’t had that often in freshman twin brother forwards John and Jacob Welsh. John stands at 6-foot-1 while Jacob is listed at 6-4.
“I think both of those guys are the face of the future of our boys basketball here,” Coach Austin said. “We’re inserting them right now to be big pieces of who we are, and not just because of their sizes.”
Junior Cam Welsh will also play a vital role at the four and five spots. Coach Austin said he expects Cam Welsh to bring a tough interior presence to the court.
Coach Austin has also been impressed with sophomore guard Chapel Pope’s leadership and freshman guard/forward Connor Bates’ motor at practice.
Junior forward Braxton Haney is the Panthers’ utility player. Coach Austin said he could possibly play any position. Rounding out the boys roster is junior guard Jon Marq Rogers and sophomore guard Cole Bailey. Both players will be splitting time between B-team and varsity.
“Like the girls, we’ve got a lot of pieces. We’ve got a lot to work with,” Coach Austin said. “They’re not as polished as they need to be right now. It’s going to take us a while to do it, but at least the tools are there and the desire is there. The right attitude is there.
“I think we can build off of football’s success. We’ve done a really good job with that in the past.”
Spring Garden competes in Class 2A, Area 12 with Sand Rock, Gaston and Westbrook Christian.