When a team loses its star point guard and Division I recruit, along with two additional starters that were All-Southeast District honorees from the year prior, the going is usually pretty tough for the same unit over the course of the following year.
The same was expected of the South Webster Lady Jeeps following the 2015-16 campaign, especially when looking at the losses of Kacie Hall— a freshman at Big South Conference member Presbyterian College — along with Cheyenne Weakley, Kimber Johnson, Maddie Stamper and Alley Wilson from the same unit.
Between Hall and Weakley alone, the Lady Jeeps lost 28.8 points per game. With the loss of the pair, in addition to Johnson, South Webster lost a Division IV First-Team, Third-Team, and Special Mention player from the All-Southeast District Team — in one fell swoop.
But as the area has come to find out, it doesn’t seem to matter who South Webster loses — because they’ll always find a way to be competitive the following year.
Behind the all-around play of Ellie Jo Johnson, the gritty efforts of Madison Cook and the help of a young, but immensely talented core around them, the Lady Jeeps not only hold a record well above .500, but are right back in the Division IV District Finals – with a chance to take home a district title for a third consecutive year.
For Kristie Johnson, the pride for her unit – which holds a 15-9 record despite having just two seniors on the roster – is evident in her voice.
“I’m really proud of the girls,” Johnson said. “A lot of people didn’t think that we would even reach .500 this year, and here we are, six games over .500 and playing for a district championship. I couldn’t be more pleased with or proud of the girls and the improvement that they’ve shown. Essentially, we have one starter back in Ellie Jo (Johnson), and everyone else, outside of Avery (Zempter) and Maddie (Cook), didn’t have much experience in postseason play. But they’ve overcome that, and that’s a credit to how hard they’ve worked.”
To take home its third consecutive district crown, however, South Webster will have to extinguish an opponent that has long been a thorn in the side of the Lady Jeeps – Waterford.
The Lady ‘Cats have knocked South Webster out of the Division IV playoffs in each of the last five postseasons dating back to 2012, with each of the losses coming in either the district finals or the regional semifinals, including last season’s 65-29 loss to the eventual state champions in the Division IV Regional Semifinals.
However, South Webster and Johnson want a challenge – that’s evident in the Lady Jeeps’ yearly efforts of taking on the SOC II gauntlet. So it’s safe to say that the Lady Jeeps aren’t deterred by the tough losses that have preceded this year’s district final.
“One of our goals for the year was to get back to Waterford and take another shot at them,” Johnson said. “We’ve made it back to where we can do that, so now we’re trying to prepare for what they bring to the table. In getting ready for Waterford, we can sit and compare players to a player from Wheelersburg or to a player from Minford that we’ve already played, how we defended them, and what we need to do to make adjustments to that. It’s huge to play with that style of competition because it helps you prepare for the tournament, so (playing in the SOC II) provides us with a huge advantage.”
Over the balance of the season, it’s clear that Ellie Jo Johnson’s efforts have been vital to the success of South Webster’s unit, as her 18.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and four steals per contest are all team-highs.
Those stats are already eye-popping for any player, but when one considers the fact that the newest 1,000-point Lady Jeep is still just a junior in eligibility, and has accumulated those numbers while primarily playing as a point guard, makes those numbers truly astonishing.
“Ellie Jo’s our speaking captain,” Johnson said. “She may be running the point at 6-1, but she has that mentality and the leadership intangibles necessary to run the point. She can handle the ball, she has dealt with pressure, and she is our veteran when it comes to postseason play.”
Cook and Zempter, however, are no slouches either. The former, with 9.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, has recovered from an ACL tear to become a great glue player for the Lady Jeeps, while the latter, at 8.8 points per contest, provides a strikingly similar scoring punch and frame to what Weakley provided throughout her high school career.
“We’ve had games where Maddie has stepped up and scored 20 points, and games where Avery has stepped up and added 20 points,” Johnson said. “Others have stepped up when we’ve played a good team, and have shut Ellie Jo down. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
In addition to the above trio, South Webster has a nice core around them.
Rose Stephens, a freshman guard, was singled out by Johnson as a “great defensive player” who takes on the responsibility of guarding the opposing team’s best offensive talent. Kaylee Hadinger, a junior guard, is second on the unit in steals and, along with Stephens, adds a gritty presence to the backcourt.
Off of the pine, Adrianna Blanton is a multi-dimensional talent that can play inside or outside. Karli and Kelsi Montgomery, who are twins, are solid ballhanders who can knock down the open jumper. And Alicia Watson and Cheyenne Russell give South Webster the post depth necessary to help Cook and Johnson on the boards if need be.
“We’ve got a lot of girls who are coming off of the bench and filling the necessary roles that are making our team successful,” Johnson said. “They know that they are expected to step up and be significant pieces to the puzzle.”
And those pieces will have to be ready for a Waterford unit that presses relentlessly and has two players that can play inside or out in Alli Kern and Megan Ball.
“Waterford’s defense is exceptional; they always are,” Johnson said. “We see them so much that we know the kind of defense that they play, which is very aggressive and very physical. We’ve just got to be ready for that and do the little things, such as diving for loose balls and getting after people defensively.”
Johnson, however, believes that South Webster has what it takes to get the job done against the Lady ‘Cats – once and for all.
“We’re probably not favored to win, but it’s tournament time,” Johnson said. “Anything can happen in tournament time, and hopefully, we’ll go out, play to the best of our ability, and get a win. I think that they’re beatable. Minford beat them pretty handily (64-37) in the last regular season game for both teams, while we played Minford to within 10 (59-49) in our second contest against them, so there’s stuff to build on. However, I know that Jerry Close is a great coach, and I’m sure that he has seen things that he hopes to exploit. We’ve just got to go out and take care of business (on Thursday evening).”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter at @ColleyKevin7