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James leads young Cougars girls squad
by Aaron Retherford
Nov 30, 2009 | 855 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/John Byrne - SSHS girls basketball coach Christine Eckles is back at the helm and hopes to take the Cougars back to the playoffs.
Tribune/John Byrne - SSHS girls basketball coach Christine Eckles is back at the helm and hopes to take the Cougars back to the playoffs.
In four playoff contests, the Spanish Springs girls basketball team is 1-3 with the Cougars reaching the semifinals two seasons ago.

Last year, the local squad suffered a close 47-44 loss to Galena in the first round of regional play. So the obvious next step for the program is to become more consistently successful in the postseason and reach the championship for the first time.

But that will take quite a bit of hard work this year after losing about 69% of the offensive production from a year ago, including two starting guards Caitlin McKinney and Tiffany Lang.

"I think guards are a little bit of our weakness. We graduated both Tiffany and Caty, who handled the point for us last year and were in the program a couple of years," SSHS girls basketball coach Christine Eckles said. "Amanda O'Ferrell, Jessica Fralick and freshman Riley Holladay will share time there at the point guard position for us. Whoever continues to develop and makes good decisions will be the one to get the most playing time. It's definitely an area that's a big question mark for us right now."

However, SSHS fans will recognize a familiar face. Senior Ari James is back as a four-year starter after claiming the Cougars' lone first team all-league selection a year ago.

James averaged about 11 points and six rebounds during her junior campaign and was tops on the team in scoring, field-goal percentage (49.4) and steals (3.5 per game). She was second in rebounds and assists.

James is the type of player who can post up down low or help alleviate the full-court pressure by bringing the ball up the floor. She also has been working on her outside shot.

As the only returning full-time starter, James will be relied heavily upon for her skills and leadership.

"She was our go-to player last year, so that won't change," Eckles said. "She'll be expected to make buckets for us when we need scores. She'll most likely have the task of defending the other team's best player. The only thing that has changed is she'll be asked to be a more vocal leader."

After losing four players who started most of the season, the Cougars must turn to players who might not have seen much playing time a year ago.

Eckles believes she has a couple who could definitely impress.

Senior forward Kelly Hernandez showed spots of greatness last year, averaging a double-double during a six-game span in which several regular starters were suspended. Hernandez earned her way back into the starting lineup by the end of the season and could be a force in the High Desert League after averaging just under seven points and seven rebounds a game last year.

"She has the potential to be the second best post in the league behind (Reed's) Danielle Peacon in my opinion," Eckles said. "She has to play day in and day out for us."

Fralick was a nice little guard the Cougars had on the bench last year. While she didn't rip up the scoring column, her hustle as a defensive stopper was noticeable and is expected to be an even more productive team member this winter.

But the Cougs also have a trio of freshmen coming in, Lyndsey Anderson, Holladay and Sam Owens, who could be pleasant surprises.

"It's a gamble at this point because they're young and don't have any varsity experience, but they've played a lot of club ball," Eckles said. "They have a lot of game experience, but can they adjust to the speed and physicality of varsity basketball? They are all very skilled offensively and defensively, and I think if they come along, they can really help us.

"At this point, I'm not putting a lot of pressure on them. I just want them to continue to develop. Obviously they provide us a bright future, but I'm not going to worry about that right now. We're just trying to get back to the playoffs and win games in the playoffs."

Spanish Springs already has scrimmages under its belt in California from this past weekend.

Eckles said the team moved the ball around offensively better than she anticipated and the defense played better than last year at the same point, but the Cougars did turn the ball over more than she would have liked against athletic teams.

Spanish Springs gets into real game action tonight when it hosts South Tahoe at 7 p.m.

"I like how we don't get into the thick of league for a good month. Although we have some returners, we have a lot of youth and we're going to need that month of December to continue to improve and grow to have a chance to be a playoff team," Eckles said. "I like it (the non-league schedule). I think it presents some challenges for us and also gives us some opportunities with games that we should win, so we can build some confidence. It's a good mix for us.

"We've lost so many seniors who had been in the program for so long that it's a little bit of a rebuilding with some of our younger kids. We need to be able to get them in the position to have success and gain confidence. If they do that, they can have a great impact on league play because they're pretty talented kids. They just need experience and confidence."
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