By Kyle Roberts
Ruston High head coach Meredith Graf knows that last year was supposed to end differently.
Ravaged with injuries to key players, the Lady Bearcats still put up a respectable finish in the postseason with a 38-37 loss to No. 8 Chalmette on the road after earning the No. 25 seed in the playoffs.
Now, the Lady Bearcats are looking for a fresh start — with key veteran leadership returning to the team.
“I think we have had a really good preseason,” Graf said. “The girls have worked very hard on the floor and the weight room and they’ve had great attitudes about the tough things that we’ve asked them to do. I also feel like that this team has wonderful chemistry. There’s a great mixture of seniors trickle down with just the different ages and classes, and I just feel like they they can really lean on each other.”
From an identity standpoint, Graf is looking to play as a fast-paced team, getting the ball up and down on the floor and use depth to press on defense.
“We’re going to use our depth to our advantage,” Graf said. “We’ll be looking to press at certain times in certain ways to keep people fresh by rolling them in and out, so to speak. It always starts with your defense going over into you offense. We’re going to look to heat up the ball, and we’re going to try to create turnovers to get us some easy baskets, especially at the beginning of the year. We’ve got about 15 girls that are going to dress, and from a coaching standpoint, we’ll figure out who can do what and fill what role as we go along in certain ways. I’m excited to see how that develops and how we can use everybody to benefit our team as a whole.”
Ruston brings back senior guard Jaliyah McWain, who was named second-team all-state and Offensive MVP in District 2-5A last season.
“Jaliyah is the player for us that has the most experience and been in the fire,” Graf said. “I feel like this preseason, she has done a very good job of getting people involved, and I’ve expressed to her that she is best whenever she creates for others, because when we get the ball, it starts with her. She’s the reason why we get kicked up and why there’s a transition break where somebody gets wide open because they draw to her.
“With her God-given speed and ability, we’re going to try to take advantage of that and let her use what she can do to better our entire team. And basically getting some of her teammates back from not being able to play due to injuries.”
Last season, Ruston lost three players to season-ending injuries in senior Zaccheya Jackson, senior A’Nyia Moore and junior Kiersynce McNeal. Graf said she will continue to monitor their progress early in the season as both Jackson and Moore have been cleared to return.
“(Jackson) has come back very well from her injury,” Graf said. “I believe a lot of it is going to be letting her find her footing again. When she does that, I feel like she’s capable of being a good one-two punch. McNeal is not quite cleared year, but she’s going to be a huge asset to ad to the mix when she’s is. She’s a scorer, and athlete, and brings height to our team.”
A challenge for both of Ruston’s hoops teams this year will be the temporary move to Memorial Gym on the campus of Louisiana Tech. Graf emphasized her appreciation to the administration at Louisiana Tech for allowing the use of the gym, and she will be mindful of logistics as the teams look to host home games throughout this season.
“It was a wonderful experience for our first time over there,” Graf said of a scrimmage Ruston held in the gym last week. “Tech was very hospitable and helped us basically get our ducks in a row in order to be able to host. And I felt like from a player standpoint, the floor was excellent. We actually just got the three point line installed yesterday for the high school line.
“The gym was awesome, and the environment was great. I think it’s going to create a different vibe, but it also has a lot of similarities to Ruston High, and I love that. It’s kind of like a home away from home, and so I look forward to being there and continuing to make it our own.”
Ruston opens the regular season tonight at home in Memorial Gym on the campus of Louisiana Tech against Benton. The freshmen tip off at 5 p.m., while varsity will go at 6 p.m.