Oak Mountain confident that chemistry will translate into wins

Published 8:54 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Oak Mountain is looking for big improvements this year, and the Eagles have high expectations for themselves.

A year after going 7-21 and losing in the area tournament, Palmer and the team believe they have what it takes to flip the result of many close losses from a year ago.

“I’m looking for our record to be greatly improved,” Oak Mountain head coach Beth Palmer said. “Those games that we lost last year, I look for us to win those this year and going as far as we can go, that’s been the goal. Last year, we didn’t make it. We ran into some really good talent, really good teams. It was disappointing, but I don’t think that this group was ready for that. We were a year away from being ready. I think this year, we’re ready again.”

That feeling comes from getting many young players some key experience throughout last season. Despite losing three starters, the Eagles have many key pieces back, including a pair of senior leaders in Reagan Whittaker and Ella Holt, a strong junior class and some exciting underclassmen who will work their way into the rotation.

Now that most of that learning curve that existed last season is gone, Palmer sees the growth and development in her players, and she believes that the encouraging improvements are a result of the players’ individual work ethic.

“They’re realizing what they need to do on their own, more so than me forcing them and making them have to do it,” Palmer said. “I’m not having to do quite as much of that now because they’re taking it upon themselves to do it, so that’s very encouraging to see.”

A big part of the ownership from the players comes from senior leader Reagan Whittaker, who is once again the backbone of the Eagles. Whittaker was the county’s leading scorer last year at 18 points per game, and she nearly averaged a double-double from the guard spot with 9.8 rebounds per game as an All-County First Team selection.

Now that she’s a senior, Whittaker is becoming a bigger leader for the younger players. She didn’t always see herself as a leader, but she has naturally grown into that role as she has matured and is excited about the role she is playing in developing the future of the program.

“When I was younger, I was nervous,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries and do things that weren’t technically meant for my age. But now, maturing, it feels like instead of just being like, oh, I’m a captain, it feels like I’m really shaping the future for them. So that feels really good for them to look up to me and knowing that I have influenced the way they play and things like that.

Palmer always saw Whittaker as a leader, even when Whittaker was younger. The coach sees how players gravitate to her and how she pushes players to get better.

While Whittaker plays heavy minutes and has historically been the key piece of this team, the Eagles have evolved into a team-oriented style that is more than just one player.

The seniors push the team to get better, and as a result, Maggie Morris is becoming a more confident, smarter guard and both returning sophomores Caroline Kester and Lucy McEwan are also poised for breakout seasons.

“Reagan has just been our constant,” Palmer said. “Teams expect that and we know that. So, we’re going to do everything we can to help her, but also, she realizes and this team realizes that there’s four other players out there on the court and that they need to do their part too. And so that’s why they’re stepping up, and that way it doesn’t put all of the burden on Reagan the whole time.”

That is a direct result of their chemistry, which Whittaker believes is much improved from past teams.

“I feel like in past years that our team chemistry hasn’t really been the best,” Whittaker said. “But now, I feel like we can gel better together and we know vaguely what our teammates are going to do, like their patterns or where they cut.”

Her fellow senior Ella Holt has played a part in cultivating that as well. After playing behind Whittaker as a guard, she has picked up the forward role and worked heavily on her shot to earn her way onto the floor to play alongside Whittaker and bring some height to the team.

As the other senior leader, Holt has seen how this team has grown closer together and the bond they have built both on and off the court. She believes that will directly translate into wins.

“We’re all best friends and we all know each other so well and know how we play,” Holt said. “All of us have immensely improved over time, and I think that it’s going to show in our record. It’s going to be a better season.”

It’s a confident statement, but one that is reflective of the Eagles’ attitude going into this season. Even beyond their improved conditioning and depth, the players believe in what they are capable of, and they see that confidence as one of the team’s biggest strengths.

“I think our strength is going to be lying mostly in our confidence because I know we’re all capable of doing so much more than what we were able to last year,” Holt said. “I think it’s the confidence of not being afraid of the teams that blew us out last year, to come back up and have the confidence to be like, ‘Yeah, we can play with them.’”

Oak Mountain will have a chance to prove that on the court in its season opener at Northridge on Nov. 7 ahead of its first home game against Oxford on Nov. 9.