Rantoul vying for success under new HC Thompson

RANTOUL — Two four-year starting guards, five seniors who accounted for nearly three-fourths of the scoring offense and a head coach who is gone after seven seasons at the helm of the program.

That is what the Rantoul girls basketball team must find a way to replace as it heads into its season opener Saturday against Georgetown-Ridge Farm at Oakwood’s Comet Classic.

Former All-Okaw Valley Conference performers Breezy Espinoza, now a freshman guard at Danville Area Community College, Kanohsa Williams and three more seniors led the 2016-17 Rantoul squad in scoring. But even those Eagles (31.2 points out of 43.6 per game) struggled offensively.

Now a new collection of playmakers must be assembled, and it may take some time to adjust.

The Eagles boast nine seniors, including 5-7 guard Faith Johnson and 6-0 forward/center Kaylie Wilson, each of whom is expected to be more of a focal point in the offense in addition to 5-11 sophomore center Myejoi Williams. Those three are backed by 5-0 sharpshooter Courtney Sutherland, who will be thrust into more of a distributing role as a point guard.

Throw all that in with previous coach Jeff McKaufsky now departed after resigning last spring, and first-year head coach Kelly Thompson has her hands full as she moves the girls into a new post-centric offense.

“We are definitely going to focus on getting the ball inside to our bigs,” Thompson said. “Most teams usually can’t match up with two 6-foot girls, especially with the strength that we have. And now that they can shoot from the perimeter, which is really good, they’ve become very versatile.

“But that doesn’t take out my guards (from the game plan). I have a lot of guards that are shooting guards, and I have a couple very good ball handlers on this team as well. I want to push the ball inside, but it’s going to open up the outside as well. Kaylie Wilson, Myejoi, Faith, Courtney. … I have a lot of girls. It’s very hard to narrow it down to a small list, but if you were to say three, I would say Kaylie Wilson, Myejoi Williams and Faith Johnson (are the three the offense will be centered around). Courtney’s my ball handler. She’s very important when it comes to getting everything going. She becomes a playmaker. And even though she might not be one of our high scorers, she’s going to be the one who gets the assists.”

For Sutherland, confidence and realizing how good of a shooter she can be is a key focus for the coaching staff. Though she shot just 26 percent from downtown as a sophomore, she did finish 70 percent from the free-throw line, and it’s clear to see her potential by watching her shooting form.

Sutherland, said Thompson, has a great relationship with freshman coach Ronnie Brandon. Last week, Thompson spotted the two shooting in the gym, and Sutherland was knocking down just about every shot.

As Sutherland’s shooting continues to improve, so has Wilson’s. The senior didn’t get many opportunities to shoot from outside of the paint, but that will be a point of emphasis as Wilson and Williams are each given the go-ahead to let it loose on jump shots.

“They’re letting me shoot them, and I’m making them,” Wilson said with a laugh. “I love defense to death, but I’m definitely ready to take on a more offensive role. … The girls that are here are ready to play, and we’re ready to compete with each other for a spot. And I think the competition is pretty healthy for the most part. That’s just going to make us better as the season goes on.”

What has helped ease the turnover from McKaufsky to Thompson is that Thompson is not an outsider and neither are her two assistants (Brandon and junior varsity coach April Barnett, both Rantoul graduates). Thompson, who graduated from Mahomet-Seymour and played two seasons at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is entering her first season as a varsity head coach but has six years of coaching experience under her belt — including the last two spent as the Eagles’ JV coach.

“It’s definitely different, but she’s been with us for two years,” Wilson said. “I definitely respect her to the fullest degree as a head coach. And she’s brought in some pretty good drills that have kept us going.”

Thompson takes over a Rantoul program that has found wins come few and far between. The Eagles have gone a combined 20-67 the last three seasons and haven’t won a regional championship since 1998.

“I know this program has struggled, and I know it’s hard to have a fun season if you’re losing all the time,” Thompson said. “But the nice thing about these girls is that they don’t give up. Most of these girls I coached on the JV level, and I’m excited because of their tenacity. I know they’re not going to give up. Even if they’re 0-10, they’re going to fight until they get that win.”

Three storylines

Who will be the scoring leader?

Gone from last year’s 9-19 season (really, 7-21 if you take out Urbana’s two 1-0 wins that were vacated due to forfeit) are the Eagles’ top two offensive options in guards Breezy Espinoza (7.9 points per game) and Kanosha Williams (9.5 PPG).

Can the Eagles produce enough offense?

Along with the graduation of Williams and Espinoza, now a guard at Danville Area Community College, the Eagles also lost seniors Mackenzie Taticek, Akalah Spinks and Chakhalia Dunner. Those five accounted for 72 percent of Rantoul’s scoring per game.

Will they get off to a hot start?

Rantoul got out to a 3-2 start at last year’s season-opening Comet Classic in Oakwood. The Eagles’ fourth-place finish began with blowout wins over Georgetown-Ridge Farm and Westville. It provides them a nice transition into the year against 1A schools.

Four players to watch

Faith Johnson

With top ball handlers Espinoza and Williams gone, the most important position on the floor (point guard) is now vacant. The 5-7 senior Johnson will be tasked with running the point at times, as well as most likely being the top rover in a 1-2-2 zone if Thompson decides to deploy that type of defense. Johnson will also have plenty of shooting opportunities.

Courtney Sutherland

Thompson dubbed Sutherland her main ball handler, but more important than jump-starting the offense from the point guard slot at the top of the key will be her ability to knock down shots. Though just 5 feet tall, the junior has one of the silkier shots in the area and has been reportedly knocking them down in practice. Plenty of assists and 3-point shots will be coming her way.

Myjeoi Williams

Perhaps underutilized as a freshman last year, the 5-11 sophomore averaged just 3.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game across all 28 games she played in. Don’t expect repeat numbers if Williams plays 28 games this season. Pounding the ball down low to the bigs is one of Thompson’s main points of emphasis on offense, which should provide Williams more scoring chances.

Kaylie Wilson

Ditto for the 6-foot Wilson, who put up 3.4 PPG and 4.8 RPG in 28 games. What will be a nice little wrinkle for Wilson is she has been given the green light to unload on longer jumpers, including from 3-point range. If Wilson can find a balance of knocking down perimeter shots to keep the defense honest, get touches on the blocks and get to the charity stripe, she should see those averages go up.

Roster

Elaine Barnett, 5-6, Sr.

Dynasty Brandon, 5-0, Sr.

Mackenzie Flahaut, 5-3, Jr.

Faith Johnson, 5-7, Sr.

JaDayjha McClyde, 5-1, Sr.

Emma Mihaly, 5-3, Jr.

Jada Mosley, 5-2, Jr.

Jamara O’Neal, 5-7, Jr.

Elena Shields, 5-6, Sr.

Courtney Sutherland, 5-0, Jr.

Myejoi Williams, 5-11, So.

Kaylie Wilson, 6-0, Sr.

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

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