McARTHUR — With talented kids, according to N.J. Kight, youth can be well served. That is the claim, and indeed the situation facing the first-year Vinton County girls basketball head coach Kight, as he oversees yet another Lady Vikings’ youth movement.
That’s because the Lady Vikings graduated all five senior starters from a year ago, and are building for the future with their talented core of younger players. There are only two seniors on this season’s squad, with the remainder of the roster consisting of four juniors and the rest of the 15 total all freshmen and sophomores.
Kight inherits the program from two-year head coach Courtney Hale, whose daughter Xan is one of four freshmen on the club.
There’s simply no way to sugarcoat it, said Kight, the Lady Vikings are indeed top-heavy in varsity inexperience.
“I think we’re talented, but we’re just young. It’s going to be a growing process with us throughout the season,” said Kight. “The main transition is just getting kids who either were playing junior high or junior varsity for us last season, or kids who came off the bench last season, to come in and be starters on varsity. I’ve even had kids tell me during our scrimmages that playing varsity basketball, the speed of the game especially, is a lot different than playing on JV.”
Kight is the former Jackson junior varsity boys coach, and came to Vinton County and assisted Hale for the past two seasons.
The Lady Viking varsity went 7-14 two years ago before improving to 10-12 last season, highlighted by capturing a miracle Division II sectional tournament triumph over Athens, as senior standout Tori Dixon drained a half-court heave at the buzzer.
But this season begins year 1 A.D. at VCHS.
That’s because Dixon was a four-year all-Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division selection and four-year all-Southeast District honoree from both the District 13 Coaches Association and Associated Press.
In fact, in averaging 15 points per game for her outstanding career, she earned the TVC-Ohio Most Valuable Player honor her senior season.
She graduated from Vinton County as the school’s second all-time leading scorer to Erica Hayes-Zinn with 1,311 career points (15.1 ppg).
She owns career records in assists (432), three-point goals (211), free-throw percentage (75.3-percent) and games played (87).
Her single-season records include assists (111), free-throw percentage (79.7-percent) and threes (51, 55 and 60).
Twice she amassed 11 assists in a game, and twice canned eight three-pointers in a contest.
“Any time you lose a four-year, all-state player like Tori, you have your work cut out in trying to replace her. But no one person is going to replace what Tori did for us. That’s the one thing we need to learn going into the season,” commented Kight. “It’s going to take a group effort as far as filling in the gaps for what she left.”
Allison Graves, the Lady Vikings’ other all-league and all-district honoree (Honorable Mention), graduated as well.
Dixon was joined in the backcourt by fellow four-year starting guard Chelsey Taborn, and two-year senior starters Adrienne Saylor and Brittany Stewart.
“Those were kids that played together for six years if you include junior high. Chelsey Taborn and Tori Dixon were four-year starters for us, and the other three girls were two-year starters,” said Kight. “It’s going to be different not having those kids around.”
As a result, only three letterwinners return in senior guard Sara Kingsbury (five-foot-four inches tall), 5-6 junior guard Kelsey Griffith and 5-11 sophomore Caitlyn Owings.
Griffith is a two-year varsity letterwinner with Kingsbury and Owings returning for their second year (of varsity).
“You have to look for new leaders, new scorers and new rebounders,” said Kight. “It’s putting together the entire package.”
Kight commented on the leadership role which is expected to be provided from his three returning letterwinners.
“They are the leaders as far as people that have played major minutes in the past. It all starts with them,” he said. “If they are working hard in practice, the younger girls are going to follow right behind and work hard in practice as well. Those three pretty much set the tone for us and they’ve done a great job so far. Practices have been great and energy has been up.”
Senior Donyel Castor (5-5, forward) contributed sparing minutes while battling injuries, and returns to varsity for her third and final season.
Kight said the remainder of the roster moves up from either junior varsity or junior high, as in the case of the freshmen Xan Hale, Maranda Hale, Jamee Park and Dixon’s sister Megan Dixon.
Of that foursome, Dixon (5-5 guard) will see significant minutes, and may start alongside the athletic Owings, Kingsbury, Kelsey Griffith and Keshia Griffith (5-9, junior, forward/center).
Castor, juniors Josie Ward (5-5, guard) and Kim Kazee (5-6, forward), and Xan Hale (5-10, forward) and Maranda Hale (5-5 guard) have the best chance of playing “solid minutes for us.”
“Those are all kids that will get an opportunity,” said Kight. “It’s tough with kids that are that young because they have never really played varsity. When the lights come on the first game of the season, you never know who is and who isn’t going to be able to do things.”
With the exception of Owings —arguably the Vikings’ most athletic and talented player in terms of scoring, rebounding, defending and shotblocking — the remaining four sophomores are all anticipated to play primarily reserve.
They include Maria Bartlett (5-5, guard), Emily Zinn (5-6, sophomore), Johnna Remy (5-9, sophomore) and Ashtin Womeldorf (5-10, sophomore).
Kight commented that his team is “built for speed and not for power”, and to expect a full-court up-tempo style of play.
“We’re going to get it up and down the floor a little bit. We’re athletic, especially with Caitlyn (Owings) in there. She is pretty hard to replace because she can do so many different things for us,” he said. “We’re going to look to push the ball and we’re probably looking at going nine or 10 deep. We’re in pretty good condition I think too.”
The Lady Vikings, in addition to overall experience, do lack some size minus Owings, Keshia Griffith and Xan Hale.
The remainder of the regular roster is all five-foot-six or shorter.
Graves gained notoriety as a rebounder and inside scorer, and Kight said boxing out will play a key role in overcoming a lack of a true post presence.
Vinton County’s season schedule is also difficult as — in addition to the rugged Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division— the Vikings play several Scioto Valley Conference schools in addition to the non-league likes of Logan, Ironton and Jackson.
They also face Coal Grove and River Valley of the Ohio Valley Conference.
“There is no easy game and no easy win on our schedule. But with a young team, a tough schedule can be a good thing because we won’t know any better. We can go out and play with a lot less pressure and see what we can do against some quality teams,” said Kight. “You only get better by playing quality opponents. Our schedule will help us grow up fast for sure.”
The Lady Vikings tip off the season on Saturday at 10 a.m. in the Paint Valley Bearcat Classic against Western.
It’s the start of a “growing process” again for Vinton County girls basketball, Kight said.
“The good thing about a young team like this is that there is no hangover from last year. I’m a new head coach and we’re primary new varsity players,” he said. “Our goal is to improve and make progress as the season goes along. It’s a learning and growing process for everyone, especially the first half of the season. But by tournament time, we want to improve to the point where teams don’t want to play Vinton County.”
Indeed, youth can be well served for the Lady Vikings.