Hoops Preview: Ruston High

By T. Scott Boatright

Ruston Bearcats head basketball coach Ryan Bond feels good about his team’s depth coming into the season with three seniors expected to play big roles.

But he’s still counting on his one true post player – 6’8” Jackson Pilgreen, to be a force for the Bearcats this season.

He’s a senior that started every game last year,” Bond said about Pilgreen. “He’s one of our hardest workers if not the hardest worker we have – he’s an integral part for his leadership as much as anything.”

Joining Pilgreen in the starting lineup will be seniors Dillon Wilson and Johnatarius Thomas along with junior Braylin McNeil. 

“Johntarius started a lot last year while Dillon played a lot, so they’ll both start this season. D’Angelo Harper is still playing football right now, but he is a starting caliber player.

Bond said Finnish transfer student Mikael Valtonen and Johnatarius Thomas, who started multiple games last year, will likely see some starts and play key roles off the bench.

But the Bearcats also have some younger players Bond expects to provide solid depth to this season’s RHS team.

“We have three sophomores who will come off the bench — Lonnie Dimmer, Zhyavion Scott and Kaleb Dobbins. I played those kids as freshmen last year, and I think that experience is going to be big for us. 

Bond said he expects at least a freshman duo to make impacts for the Bearcats this season.

“Aiden Anding and Joran Parker — they have no fear,” Bond said. “They go out there and they play hard and they compete. That’s a good and bad problem to have. The good is we have some depth. Right now we have a bunch of players I would feel comfortable playing. Depth is something I like right now.”

Bond’s biggest concern to open the season is holding on to the ball.

“Our biggest problem right now is just taking care of the ball,” Bond said. “I think part of that is you have new guys and guys in new roles — they’re handling the ball more, where they used to be really good complementary pieces because we had three really good seniors last year. Now everybody’s in a different role and they handle the ball more, they’re in decision-making positions more often.

“And then I have four sophomores and two freshmen that I will play. So just cleaning up turnovers is one of the biggest things we’re trying to work on right now, especially early in the year. If we can do that, then we get more shot attempts and of course, more points on the board.”

And as usual for Bond, the Bearcats will focus on the defensive end, too.

“I’m more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball, but that’s the Jim Wooldridge (former Louisiana Tech head coach who Bond played under as Dunkin’ Dog),” Bond said. “That’s my comfort level and everyone knows you have to defend to win. I think we have multiple guys the same size — Pilgreen is my only true big — but everyone can play, they can defend. 

Lady Bearcats

Ruston High School girls basketball coach Meredith Graf can’t help but feel good about her team, which returns much talent and experience from a group of Lady Bearcats that last season roared all the way to the third round of the Class 5A girls playoffs.

But Graf also realizes she can’t let her team get caught up in all of that and not focus on what they really should be focused on.

“Having all the pieces, yes, that’s important,” Graf said. “But pieces are like potential — that really doesn’t mean anything. It’s really all about growing as a team through the course of a year and that’s what I focus more on than anything else, because I feel that if we focus on growing and getting better every time we step out there, then the rest will take care of itself.

“I’m excited about this group. They work hard and really have a lot of talent. I just hope that through any and all experiences, good, bad, or indifferent, that we can just really grow as a team and really by December know who we really are and hopefully build on that.”

Last season the Lady Bearcats had four or five players who often took turns stepping up to lead the team in scoring.

Even better, all of those players return along with a new infusion of talent Graf feels could end up making an impact on this season’s squad. 

“That’s so rare,” Graf said. “If you have one or two really good players, that’s a great thing and you ride that. If you have three, that’s gold. But when you have five or maybe more, which I think we might, players who can step up and score big and lead you on any given night – that’s unbelievable. We have talent. We have experience and young talent as well. You just don’t get this blend very often. I tell the team they cannot take that for granted, because one day they’re going to look back and realize that they played on a really good team. A special team.”

In the paint, Graf expects junior Emerald Parker to lead the way for Ruston.

“Emerald is going to live and die inside,” Graf said. “She has a great shot, a great elbow, mid-range jumper to a short corner jumper.”

Long range shooting will rely heavily on seniors Mariah Hintze and Cassandra Evans with sophomore Zaccheya Jackson possibly getting into the mix as the season progresses.

“Right now she’s being who she should be and what we need her to be at this point — a solid mid-range shooter,” Graf said about Evens. “But it’s Hintze and Evans who I’m counting on to knock down threes and long twos.”

Graf said Jaliyah McWain and Alexis Foster will split time as the point guard quarterbacking Ruston’s offense.

“We’re still figuring out a couple of different things, but they’re our best ball-handlers,” Graf said of that duo. “They both have different styles, so according to the team we’re playing one might play more than the other in some games, but that’s a blessing. Who can say they have two very different point guards who are both very capable of handling multiple situations? Not many people.”

And as Graf is known for, defense will once again be the bread and butter for this season’s Lady Bearcats. 

“For me, if you can’t get stops in the halfcourt, then you are never going to make it long-term anyways,” Graf said. “For us it will be buckle down in the halfcourt, but we are quite athletic, and with our depth, we are going to look to press. We’re going to try to apply a lot of ball pressure when we can. It’s all about match-ups, every game. So there might be some times we press the whole game and there might be some games we don’t press at all. It depends on match-ups and style of play the other team will have.

“But I do think we’re going to be really good on the press. We look like a bunch of rats out there scurrying around everywhere. We’re so fast sometimes it looks like we have seven players out there. We’ll pick and choose when we do that, but defense will always be what we’re about. If we can’t get it done on that end then it doesn’t really matter, because that leads to the offensive end generating points by scoring in transition and all of that.”

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