Chelsea looking for sixth straight Sweet 16 with similar playstyle and young core

Published 9:06 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Last season, the Chelsea Hornets reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight year, but this one was even more special because it came in their first season in Class 7A.

Now, their goal is to continue their success with the same formula that has made them successful.

“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet or anything that’s going to make us better,” Chelsea coach Jason Harlow said. “I think we just got to continue to do the things that have allowed us to be successful over the last five years to get to the Sweet 16.”

That secret to success has been a strong defense paired with a half-court offense that limits turnovers and involves as many players as possible. It’s worked very well over the last five years, and Harlow hopes to stick to that playstyle.

“We’ve been lucky enough to hold our opponents under 40 points over the course of the last four years,” Harlow said. “If we play solid defense this year, we feel like we’ll have an opportunity to be a tough out late in the year. Then, offensively, we’ve got a lot of options because we’ve got a lot of talent on this team. It’s just playing solid team basketball and taking care of the basketball. And then if we do those things in January, we feel like we’re capable of playing our best basketball.”

January is always a crucial time of the year with area play on the docket, and it looks to be challenging once again this season. With Hewitt-Trussville as the undisputed top team in the area, Harlow knows that their chances to challenge the Huskies are limited, but he believes in their potential to eventually get to their level.

Beyond Hewitt, Harlow believes that the gap between themselves, Oak Mountain and Spain Park is very tight and that it will be a fight for the second place in the Sweet 16. With that said, he believes that Chelsea has a very good chance at earning that spot again.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out who’s going to emerge in that second spot and hopefully, with a young team, we’ll continue to get better throughout the course of the year and really challenge Hewitt this next year,” Harlow said.

A big reason for that optimism is the players Chelsea is bringing back. All-County First Team forward Haley Trotter led the team in points and rebounds last year, and had more points and rebounds than any player Harlow has coached. She will lead the team in a bigger role now that Sarah Brown has graduated.

In addition to Trotter returning as a starter, Chelsea brings back its entire backcourt with Sadie Schwallie and Olivia Pryor. Schwallie is a hard worker and Chelsea’s best perimeter player, and Pryor is the team’s best on-ball defender and is looking to add more offensive threat to her game.

Beyond them, Madeline Epperson and Baylor McClooney have taken the reins and become great leaders as seniors. Despite their shared love for softball, they are fully dedicated to being the best basketball players they can be and want to help their teammates realize their potential as well.

“You couldn’t ask for better leadership than what we have in these two,” Harlow said of Epperson and McClooney. “One, they’re vocal. They understand what our expectations are within the program. But two, they lead by example consistently on a daily basis, whether it’s practice or whether it’s weight room, whether it’s conditioning, it doesn’t matter.”

As a result, Epperson and McClooney believe that this team is very close, and they look forward to making one more season of memories in a Hornets basketball jersey.

Harlow believes that the Hornets will be very deep as a team, and that’s thanks to potential breakout players like new center Caroline Brown and 6-foot-2 junior Sydney Carroll.

Even though Chelsea lost seven seniors, he likes where his team is at even more than where they were going into last season because of the experience everyone earned throughout last year.

“I feel like we have potentially more coming back this year and more experience than the previous year, despite the fact that we had seven seniors and we had a couple coming off injuries,” Harlow said.

With that mentality and a young core that the Hornets can build off of for years to come, Chelsea is confident that its best days are ahead of it and that they could make it back to a sixth straight Sweet 16, and maybe even further.