SPRING GARDEN – The Spring Garden basketball teams are moving up a classification for the first time in school history during the 2020-21 basketball season, but head coach Ricky Austin said the Panthers are looking at this season as an extension of the last.
The Lady Panthers are coming off the program’s seventh overall state championship and third title in five years to cap a 35-2 season. The Panther boys (23-7) reached the Class 1A Northeast Regional final, where they lost on a heartbreaking buzzer beating 3-pointer to Jacksonville Christian, 52-49.
Both teams return many key pieces from last seasons’ successes.
On the girls’ side, the centerpiece of the Lady Panther lineup begins with junior forward Neely Welsh. The defending Cherokee County Girls Most Valuable Player averaged 12 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals last season. She came up big for the Lady Panthers during the stretch run of last season.
“I look at Neely as a game-changing player,” Austin said. “She can play all five positions for us. Right now we’ve settled in with her being a four and a five. She really grew last year as a go-to player. The stretch she had in the playoffs, I was proud for her. We saw her experience blossom in the playoffs, and that’s what’s got us excited about this year.”
Austin noted that Welsh has become more vocal of a player and taking more of a leadership role in the offseason.
“That comes from experience,” he said. “She’s becoming a great extension of a coach. I’m proud to see her grow into that.”
Speaking of growing, sophomore guard Kayley Kirk did some of that as well. After transferring from Piedmont prior to last season, Kirk adjusted well. She contributed 11 points, three boards, two assists and a pair of steals for the Lady Panthers last season.
“She come in last year and got her feet wet with us,” Austin said. “She had a good playoff run, especially in the championship game (against St. Luke’s). She’s had some really great practices and showed she’s learned our system. She feels a lot more comfortable in it. I expect we’re going to lean on her as a playmaker for us.”
The lone senior on the Lady Panthers’ roster this season is Lexie Adkison. Austin said Adkison has “improved greatly” from last season.
“It’s just been pleasant to watch her develop and grow over the last year,” he said. “In our previous practices we’ve had this year, she is so confident about herself and this team. It’s like no battle is too big. She’s ready to go to battle, and that’s what I love about her right now. She lights up when I start talking about competition down the road. She wants to lead us. She really wants to take a leading role right now. I see that from watching the way she’s practiced. I love the way she’s really come from a shy kid who didn’t say a lot to a girl who really wants to put the team on her back.”
Last season’s young point guard sensation, Ace Austin, also returns to the lineup. Coach Austin said he expects his daughter to turn things up to another level in 2020-21.
“Ace had a great summer playing travel ball. I think she’s really developed and grown more skill-wise as a playmaker for us,” Coach Austin said. “We’re going to depend on her to make a lot of plays for us this year. She’s still got a window of improvement to grow in to. She does a lot of things well, especially at practice right now. She makes practice look easy for herself, but we’re not settling for that. We’re trying to find ways to keep her uncomfortable at practice.
“Last year as a seventh grader, it was like ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ Now it’s a different role for her. We’re not just settling for ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ We want to use her talents and skills and really challenge her every day at practice and in games. I think she’s ready to show some improvement in that.”
Rounding out the Lady Panther starting lineup is junior guard Sarah Kate McKay. Coach Austin said McKay has been one of the hardest workers the Lady Panthers have had during the offseason.
“She just needs some game speed. Everything else is there,” Coach Austin said. “When she gets comfortable with that, she’s going to be a really good all-around player for us.”
Junior guards Abbey Steward, Abbie Woods and Bri Boles will provide the Lady Panthers depth.
“Here’s what I love about all eight girls we’re going to dress on the varsity. Every one of them can be coached,” Coach Austin said. “When I say that, I’m not just talking about give them a blueprint for success. You can get them to shift gears and get on another level. On the same side of that, you can coach them into doing multiple things. They’re not just shooters. They’re not just drivers. They’re not just defenders. There are multiple things they can all do. That’s kind of the way we’ve raised them.”
The Lady Panthers compete in a challenging Class 2A, Area 12 along with Gaston, Sand Rock and Westbrook Christian. Their cross region in the postseason is with Area 15, which features defending Class 3A state champion Pisgah, Ider, North Sand Mountain and Section.
The Lady Panthers open their season Saturday against Class 6A Oxford in the Champions Academy Thanksgiving Classic in Alexandria.
The Panther boys are still in the middle of a football playoff run, but Coach Austin is hoping their success on the field will be carried over to the court when their basketball season begins.
“We haven’t even bounced a basketball yet, but I’m not complaining,” Coach Austin said. “These guys will be ready in the end. We’ll get them ready in the end. That loss in the regional championship game last year stung, and it’s still stinging us. Losing to Sand Rock in the county championship game, it stung and it’s still stinging us. It’s something all those guys still talk about. I think they want to do something about it.”
Much like the Lady Panthers, the Panther boys return a wealth of talent led by a strong senior group in forward Weston Kirk, guard Ryley Kirk and forward Luke Welsh.
Weston Kirk is the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder. He averaged 17.8 points, 6.7 boards, three assists and 1.4 steals last season. Ryley Kirk was second on the team with 12.5 points, 3.7 boards, 1.6 assists and 1.7 steals.
“Our seniors, Luke Welsh, Ryley Kirk, Weston Kirk, I think people in our area and our county hear those names and there’s almost enough said. You know what you’re going to get,” Coach Austin said. “It might not be the perfect skill, but you’re talking about competitors, hard-nosed grinders, winners. That’s the way I look at those three as a whole. They come as one to me.”
Junior point guard Cooper Austin returns to direct things on the floor after averaging 11.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, four assists and 2.3 steals. Other juniors on the roster are Chaz Pope, Andrew Bates, Denver Jarrett and Andrew Floyd. Sophomores Cam Welsh and D’Angelo Wright, along with freshman Chapel Pope, round out the Panther boys’ roster.
“They’re kind of like our girls. They’re all so fun to coach,” Coach Austin said. “It’s not basketball season right now for our guys. They’re in the middle of the football playoffs, but when I see these guys in the hall, when I see them on campus or whatever, it’s almost like they feel ‘It’s about that time Coach’ without having to say anything. None of us are wanting to give up anything in football, but it’s almost as if you feel the vibes we’re all looking forward to it. That’s where we are.
“I hope we win three more football games. I hope we’re delayed three more weeks. We’ll start where we can start, but I’m looking forward to getting going with them.”
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