WHEELERSBURG — While Wheelersburg’s roles may change, its expectations simply won’t.
That’s because the Lady Pirates — despite a pair of key graduation losses — are anticipating another strong season, as Wheelersburg will return three starters to intertwine with some newcomers in its aim to repeat as Southern Ohio Conference Division II and Division III district champions.
The Lady Pirates, with 18-year head coach Dusty Spradlin, posted a 20-5 record — advancing all the way to the regional championship tilt after storming through the SOC II at 13-1.
“We’re trying to replace those two that graduated, and the biggest ‘problem’ is just that roles change. Somebody has to fill in for those roles somehow and someway. Our good problem is that we have a lot of kids to choose from,” said Spradlin. “It’s not as easy as everyone thinks replacing a 1,000-point scorer in Abbie (Kallner), and Karlie (Estep) did a lot of little things that people don’t always see.”
Indeed, Wheelersburg — while only graduating two — did lose a couple of key cogs.
Abbie Kallner, a second-team all-Southeast District Division III honoree and 1,000-point scorer for her career, left as the school’s third all-time leading scorer —having averaged 15.8 points per game as a senior.
She is now playing at Shawnee State University, while Karlie Estep offered all those intangibles you want for your team.
But, they didn’t leave the Pirate cupboard bare.
In fact, in a program of 21 with 13 listed on the varsity roster, Wheelersburg’s returning starters are as good as anybody’s around Southeastern Ohio.
That trio includes five-foot, six-inch juniors Kaylee Darnell and Ellie Kallner, and 5-9 sophomore forward Alaina Keeney.
Darnell, in fact, was Wheelersburg’s first-team all-Southeast District selection at 16-and-a-half points per game, as Ellie Kallner claimed Special Mention.
While the remainder of the Lady Pirates’ roster is slowly, but surely, gelling — Wheelersburg will play to the strengths of those three.
Also returning are guards Lani Irwin (5-2, sr.) and Lauren Jolly (5-4, jr.), which Spradlin said are transitioning from defensive-minded performers from a year ago to greater offensive threats this season.
And, while Wheelersburg’s height mainly ranges from 5-6 to 5-9 — 5-10 senior Brittani Wolfenbarker, a transfer from Minford, will provide that presence that can score and rebound inside along with stepping outside to shoot.
“We were small last year, and we’re a little bit taller this year than what we’ve been, but we still don’t have a lot of varsity experience playing with that size,” Spradlin said. “We’re still trying to figure out how everyone is going to fit together, but with the style of play of Kaylee (Darnell), Ellie (Kallner) and Alaina (Keeney), their strength is having open areas where they can drive and kick out to spot-up shooters. I do hope we have more of an inside presence this year, which is something we didn’t have last year. I think we’re going to have more of a scoring threat in there.”
Speaking of December, the Lady Pirates were fortunate with the scheduling gods, given that seven players which play basketball were also listed on the varsity volleyball tournament team.
The Pirates played their season opener on Monday, Dec. 2 — nine days after the majority of their competition tipped off.
Wheelersburg reached the state semifinals in volleyball, as basketball began official practice two weeks earlier than normal — when the Lady Pirates played in the regional tournament.
Darnell and Jolly were the respective libero and setter for the Lady Pirates, as Kallner, Keeney, Wolfenbarker and Irwin were primary Pirates on the successful soccer squad.
Spradlin said winning in one sport carries over into the next.
“Our kids are involved in multiple sports and we love that,” Spradlin said. “We love that they are doing other sports and we feel like when it’s our turn to get them, we can really focus in on basketball. Winning breeds winning, and we like the fact that our kids get those other experiences.”
Rounding out the roster are three freshmen (5-6 Makenna Walker, 5-8 Lexie Rucker and 5-7 Macee Eaton), three sophomores (5-6 Brynley Preston, 5-6 Isabella Hamilton and 5-7 Lindsay Heimbach) and one senior (5-8 Ryley Grant).
Grant is listed as the club’s only center, although Wolfenbarker is the tallest Pirate.
While Wolfenbarker will help solidify Wheelersburg as the preseason favorite for a repeat championship, Spradlin said the SOC II is indeed “interesting” this year.
“When our league has been good, it’s been good in the top two, three, maybe even four teams. This year, it seems like it is more wide open,” said Spradlin. “At least everyone has that capability. Now who wins the league is the team that can put it all together and play good basketball and go win road games. You have to win at home, then you have to find as many ways as possible to win on the road. That’s not easy at all in our league. Our league schedule is going to be great with 16 league games. This could be one of our better league years. On paper, it sure looks like it is wide open for a lot of teams top to bottom.”
Outside of the league, the Pirates play at Greenup County (Ky.), host highly-touted Division II Vinton County, and face Ohio Valley Conference favorites Ironton, South Point and Chesapeake.
Wheelersburg will also encounter Russell (Ky.) — as part of the annual Tackett’s Body Shop Shootout in Ironton.
While several of the non-league contests are in January or February, that gives the Lady Pirates time to gel together throughout December.
Because, in fact, while Wheelersburg’s roles may change, it’s expectations simply won’t.
“My concern is we are mixing in a lot of new kids with some successful kids we’ve had in the program for a few years now, so it always takes time to gel, but I do expect us to do some good things again,” Spradlin said. “Things went really well for us as far as matchups, we played very well at the end of the season, our kids believed, and we stayed healthy. This year, we can absolutely contend for the league and go on another deep run, but those same things that went well for us last year we need to have happen again.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved