Despite a banner year with 31 wins and another District 16-5A title last season, the John Tyler girls basketball team wasn’t satisfied. The Lady Lions wanted to advance further than the regional quarterfinals.
Though two starters graduated from a team that lost just five times all year, returning and incoming talent has JT coach Mike Smith excited about another chance to make a run.
The Lady Lions open the 2015-16 season Thursday against Bullard at Tyler Junior College’s Wagstaff Gymnasium, set for 6 p.m.
John Tyler went 31-5 last year, reaching the 30-win mark for the first time since the 2003-04 team won 34 behind school legend A’quonesia Franklin.
This year’s Franklin is senior Ashtyn Beal, a four-year starter who has garnered just about every award imaginable, from district Newcomer of the Year to league MVP.
Beal is among three returning starters alongside junior post Alyssa Mayfield and sophomore guard Destini Whitehead, both of whom became integral players as the Lady Lions won night in and night out.
However JT will have to deal with the loss of first-team all-district selections Amia Wickware and Tameal Jones, who graduated along with post Shakala Johnson.
For her part, Beal has changed her role on the team from a leadership perspective, Smith said.
“She’s being more vocal,” Smith said. “She’s usually been a quiet leader. She’s being more vocal, more positive. She’s realizing this is her final year in high school.”
Meanwhile Whitehead, who was named 16-5A Defensive Player of the Year last year, and Mayfield, haven’t stopped improving.
Both players were new to varsity last year and have played a lot of basketball over the summer.
“They both work hard,” Smith said. “They’re better, they’re more experienced, they’re stronger, they’ve grown. We’re looking forward to great things out of both of them.”
Kaleigh Hackett and Sha’Kendra Tilley are also back for their senior years and will provide plenty of leadership, Smith said. Both were key components of a deep roster that often played two platoons of five, helping the second unit thrive against tiring opponents.
A fourth senior is Kandice Jackson, who makes her varsity basketball debut after a standout season as the Lady Lions’ setter on the volleyball team.
As for the starting rotation, Smith said he’s likely to go with Beal, Whitehead and Mayfield, with sophomore Kaleon Grant at the point and junior Daz Johnson at the 4 or 5 against Bullard.
Grant played behind Tameal Jones last year while Johnson has the most height on the team at 6-0.
The Lady Lions will also be able to turn to newcomers Brea Criss and Brea Staten. Criss will help spell Johnson at post while Staten is a wing in the same vein as Wickware, able to shoot and rebound.
John Tyler will be tested right away against the Lady Panthers, whose post Lexi Kirgan signed with Abilene Christian on Wednesday.
“They’re led by Lexi Kirgan inside, but they’ve got a really good team around her,” Smith said. “They play hard, play well together and we’re going to have to really be in midseason form to win that ballgame.”
The Lady Lions’ home opener is Monday against Dallas South Oak Cliff. Tournaments include the Jack Frost Invitational, Great East Texas Shootout and Macy Chenevert Patriot Classic while District 16-5A play begins Dec. 15 at fellow league favorite Lufkin.
John Tyler went 22-12 in Beal’s freshman year, 21-11 the next season before last year’s stellar mark.
A couple years ago, the Lady Lions traveled to Georgetown for the Jack Frost Invitational as a relative unknown in that part of the state.
John Tyler went 1-2 in the tournament that year but returned the next year and finished runners-up in the Silver Bracket.
A sign of the team’s growing esteem in Central Texas, this year’s JT team opens the tournament in a showcase game with Austin Westlake in the main gym.
“I’m proud Georgetown thinks that much of us and has that much respect to put us in that game,” Smith said. “I’m proud of the girls for getting us to that point.”
Now the Lady Lions are seeking that sort of respect from the entire state.
John Tyler 2015-2016 Girls Basketball Schedule
Date Opponent Time
Nov. 12 vs. Bullard$ 6 p.m.
Nov. 16 Dallas South Oak Cliff 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 20 Pine Tree 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 23 Alba-Golden 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 24 Robert E. Lee 4:30 p.m.
Dec. 1 at Kilgore 7 p.m.
Dec. 3 vs. Austin Westlake# 9 a.m.
Dec. 3 vs. Hutto# 4 p.m.
Dec. 4 vs. The Woodlands# 3 p.m.
Dec. 5 vs. TBA# TBA
Dec. 10-12 Great East Texas Shootout TBA
Dec. 15 *at Lufkin 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 18 *Nacogdoches 7:15 p.m.
Dec. 28-30 Chenevert Patriot Classic TBA
Jan. 2 Henderson 5 p.m.
Jan. 5 *at Whitehouse 6 p.m.
Jan. 8 *Corsicana 6:15 p.m.
Jan. 12 *at Jacksonville 6:15 p.m.
Jan. 15 *Lindale 6:15 p.m.
Jan. 22 *Lufkin 6:15 p.m.
Jan. 26 *at Nacogdoches 6:15 p.m.
Jan. 29 *Whitehouse 6:15 p.m.
Feb. 2 *at Corsicana 6:15 p.m.
Feb. 5 *Jacksonville 6:15 p.m.
Feb. 9 *at Lindale 6:15 p.m.
$ - At Tyler Junior College’s Wagstaff Gym
# - Jack Frost Invitational, Georgetown
* - District 16-5A