Two seasons ago, Apollo High School’s girls’ basketball program was the cream of the crop in the 3rd Region, with the E-Gals earning their first regional title and KHSAA state tournament appearance since 1997.
Last season, Apollo (15-17) began a rebuilding process that will continue this season, according to coach Natalie Payne.
“We’re still rebuilding, especially when you consider we lost Amaya Curry and Shelbie Beatty off last year’s team, two outstanding players who meant so much to the program for several years,” Payne said. “We worked through growing pains and wound up overachieving, reaching the regional semifinals. I was very proud of the strides we made last season.
“We’re still in that phase where we’re working on the basic fundamentals with a lot of young players, and we’re very young on the perimeter, so it’s going to take some time for this year’s team to reach its full potential.
“We’ll use the December portion of our schedule to find our identity and go from there. Hopefully, we’ll continue to get better as the season goes along.”
Among the top returnees for the E-Gals are senior guard Gracie Survant (2.2 ppg), sophomore point guard Gizelle Whitlock (2.3 ppg), junior center Jenna Dant (11.5 ppg), junior power forward Jennifer Lee (3.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), freshman guard Kennedy Lane (5.8 ppg) and sophomore guard Heleina John (1.2 ppg).
“Gracie will provide much-needed vocal leadership, and Gizelle is a very athletic player with a quick first step who can cause a lot of havoc at the defensive end,” Payne said. “Jenna is a key presence for us on the inside, and she provides a lot of scoring, rebounding and experience on the interior. She can average a double-double for us.
“Jennifer is very strong and not afraid of contact and will work well in a high-low post combination with Jenna. Kennedy is a pure scorer who can drive, pull up in the mid-range and shoot the 3, and Heleina is a versatile player who will create a mismatch for our opponents.”
Also in the mix is freshman guard Abby Sapp.
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“Abby is a very capable player who is going to help us,” Payne said. “She’s going to get better and better as she gains more experience at the varsity level.”
Payne believes Apollo will ultimately be a versatile team capable of playing at varying speeds.
“I think we have the personnel to push the ball up the court, but we’re also capable of being strong in the half-court game because we have two 6-footers down low (Dant and Lee). As always, pace of play will be determined by the opponent — we want to set ourselves up in a way that will maximize our talent and lead to success.
“Ball-handling will be a real key for us, and we need to find ways to break pressure and feed the ball to our big players in the paint — we have to be able to take advantage of our size and strength on the inside to become the best team we can be.”
At the defensive end, the E-Gals will seek to be disruptive and turn the opposition over with regularity.
“We really want to get after it defensively, force turnovers and come away with some easy baskets at the other end,” Payne said. “It’s going to be real beneficial to our team if we’re able to create defensive havoc and set the tone of he game in our favor that way.
“We’ll press some, for sure, but we also need to be a lock-down defensive team in the half-court — again, utilizing the size we have to the fullest advantage.”
As with all Payne-coached teams, there will be no shortcuts to success.
“We have to work hard every day and develop the right mindset to compete against our schedule,” Payne said. “We worked hard and achieved some good things last season, and it’s going to take that same kind of work to do it again this season.”