Spain Park has tight-knit young roster ready to gain experience

Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2022

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

With the loss of four seniors from last year and no seniors on this year’s team, the Spain Park Jaguars are in a different situation ahead of the 2022-2023 girls basketball season.

Not only will the Jags look to get back to the postseason after missing out for the first time in several years last season, but they’ll have a young group of players that will start gaining invaluable experience.

“There is really no expectation and we will probably be the underdog in every game we play,” head coach Mike Chase said. “I like that situation. I’m looking forward to these guys stepping on the floor because they want to be good they just don’t have that experience yet. Every time they step on the floor, they’re going to get better. Our ceiling will be higher than everyone else’s.”

It’s a shift from where the team was a few years ago as favorites for a state championship entering the season, but it’s a role that excites a close-knit group.

This year’s team features one junior, six sophomores and three freshmen, but they’re all closely connected and enjoy gracing the floor with one another.

Zyian Heyligar is the most veteran player as a junior, and she’s looking to capitalize on her role leading this year’s team.

“Z is our best vocal leader,” Chase said. “She is really encouraging and does a good job of trying to get morale up.”

Standing at 5-foot-10 and playing the forward position, she is also the tallest on the team and will be important in many facets of the game, while also making sure the team doesn’t get discouraged—something she said Chase has helped her with.

“My first year was seventh grade and coach Chase got me immediately,” she said. “He’s a great coach. I’ve loved it. It may get hard sometimes, but I know he is going to have our backs, so I try my best to push people and be a leader.”

Beyond her, sophomore Charlee Bennett is the leader of the large group of sophomores.

Bennett, also a star softball player as a sophomore, is juggling a lot as a multi-sport athlete, but the aspect that sticks out to her on the basketball floor is playing with her best friends.

“A lot of my close friends play basketball,” she said. “Coach Chase makes it fun and is great coach too, but I love practicing and playing games with my friends and going to the tournaments. We get to spend time with each other and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”

Chase said the sophomore players automatically look up to Bennett because of her presence in both basketball and softball.

“She doesn’t have to say a whole lot to them,” Chase said. “Just the things she does and how good she is as an athlete as a softball player and worker. They naturally follow her. She leads a bulk of that group.”

Chase compared the sophomore group to the 2018 state championship team that was full of seniors that were extremely close on and off the court, adding that this group has the potential to get there over the next three years.

As far as this season goes, Chase said he is enjoying the challenge of reflection and finding ways to coach his players.

“I’ve had to adjust from a coaching perspective,” he said. “I tell them all the time that it isn’t great that we can’t make the layup or the shot, but the point is, I’m watching film, breaking down stuff and working on drills because I know we can’t just rely on going out, getting a steal and an easy basket. We have to work together, and I have to put them in the right position.”

He said in the past the team might be able to rely on a player or two making up for different areas, but now, he is having to take a deep dive into helping develop a young group.

Some of the other sophomores on this year’s team include Trinity Daniels, Tori Flournoy, MC Hunter, Campbell Busby and Jordyn Corey, while freshmen Allie Whitkaer, Kaden Philpot and Teagan Huey are also there to provide help.

Chase said the Jags have trimmed the schedule back some this year and that he caught some flak for that, but added that he wanted to give this year’s team their best chance to compete and gain confidence throughout the season.

As for motivation, he said it’s as simple as looking up in the gym and seeing the two state championship banners there.

“We don’t have a bad culture,” Chase said. “Really, what it comes down to is not having enough minutes under our belts and not having enough experience, but January is when it matters, and we’ll be better then than we are game one against Cullman.”

Spain Park’s girls will open the season at Wallace State against Cullman at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11.