By Ray Hamill — It’s still early in the season, but from what we’ve seen so far there’s every reason to believe the McKinleyville Panthers will be better prepared for the Big 5 this winter.
The Mack girls have struggled in league play in each of the past two seasons and are currently riding a 17-game Big 5 losing streak, something they’ll be hoping to turn the corner on as soon as next week when they open league play against Arcata.
In the meantime, they’ll look to continue their preparation at the Panther Classic this week, with Fortuna, St. Bernard’s and Hoopa Valley also featuring among the seven-team field.
“We want to continue to build, and we want to get to the championship game. It’s been three years since we did,” McKinleyville head coach Tony McClure said. “And we just want to keep getting better.”
If they do reach the championship game, it will be their second tournament decider in three weeks, after losing to Eureka in the final of the Arcata tournament two weeks ago.
Defense has been key to the team’s 4-2 start, with multiple returning players from last season’s 9-17 squad, all of them a year older and more experienced.
The next step, according to the coach, is to learn how to win close games and how to overcome fourth-quarter adversity.
“I feel like we’re making good progress, but there are still lessons we need to learn to progress to the next level,” McClure said. “We’re still learning how to play when we’re under duress, and learning how to play in the fourth quarter.”
The coach admits he saw some promise in that regard against Arcata two weeks ago, when the Panthers outscored their close rivals 17-14 in the final period to pull out a confidence-building win.
Senior leadership evident
The Panthers have a trio of seniors on hand this season, but should feature a balanced lineup with a talented and experienced junior class as well, most of whom went through the growing pains of last winter.
Senior Grace Rosebrook has been leading the team “on and off the court,” according to McClure, and vocal in helping out the younger players, as has fellow senior Faith Kibby.
A third senior, Theresia Dickey, has been leading by example on the court, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
“They’re all getting better as leaders,” McClure said.
Dickey has been a big part of the team’s defensive intensity, which itself has been a big part of the Panthers’ game in the early season, and one of the team’s strengths.
“We pretty much have the same group as last year,” the head coach said “And they have good defensive intensity. I haven’t had to spend much time working on that in practice. They just picked right up where they left off a year ago.”
Five of the juniors on the roster have previous varsity experience, including two — Rian Heenan and Rayn Tripp — who are in their third year with the team.
And that has been evident early, with each of them off to impressive starts.
Three other juniors — Hailee Henry, Hope Kibby and Mikayla Minton — are each in their second year playing varsity, and each has developed their game from a year ago.
“They’re progressing well,” McClure said of the juniors.
Emphasis on shooting
This season the coach has also put an added emphasis on shooting drills at practice, and that’s something he feels has already paid dividends.
“We’ve been working more on footwork and mechanics and not just slinging shots,” the coach said. “And I’m already seeing some of the younger girls getting better.”
Henry, in particular, has raised the range of her offensive game, and it’s made a big difference for the team.
Juniors Maritza Solano and Kyrie Wiegand, as well as sophomores Kylee Townsend and Cameron Heenan round out the roster, with the latter making an immediate impact this season.
The Mack girls open against Hoopa Valley on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
St. Bernard’s and Redding Christian get the tourney under way at 5 p.m., with Fortuna playing Yreka at 8 p.m.
The tournament continues through Saturday.
The Mack girls open the Big 5 against Arcata next Wednesday, in a game that has been moved froward from Jan. 2.