By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
Jeff Schafer is excited about his team.
And who wouldn’t be?
The Effingham girls finished 20-11 last year and have the nucleus of that team returning, including seven of the top eight scorers.
And the Lady Hearts are still young with three juniors and four sophomores among Schafer’s projected eight-player rotation.
“Am I excited about this season? For sure,” the veteran coach admitted. “Winning 20 games with our young starting lineup was a good start for them last year. Plus, they played 25 to 50 games together this summer. I like what I see with this team.”
Schafer did say goodbye to four seniors – Miranda Steffen, Shelby Nunamaker, Taylor Crowell and Shayna Phillips – but having so much experience returning has caused him to set his expectations high for the 2016-17 campaign.
“In junior high, these girls were a pressing, running, trapping team,” he explained. “Now we’re teaching them how to play half court and man-to-man defense.
“This summer, I turned them loose again, but still emphasized the principles we’ve taught them,” Schafer added. “Now I’ve got to determine what style will be the most successful. Just because they were successful this way in junior high doesn’t automatically mean it will be the same in high school. It gets a little tougher at this level.
“We played more up-tempo this summer, but it’s still important for them to be able to play half court as well. There will be games you have to find other ways to win.”
Versatility and scoring ability are definitely team strengths. But Schafer knows his squad will need to improve its overall shooting ability, both from the floor and the free throw line.
“We didn’t shoot the ball very well last year, but still found ways to win 20 games,” he noted. “Part of that is learning what is a good shot and what isn’t. We’re working to get everyone on board and executing properly to get good shots. And I feel like we’re starting to learn that.”
Free throw shooting was an Achilles heel last year. The Lady Hearts had no problem getting to the line, putting up 800 attempts. But they shot only 54 percent.
“I feel we lost 5 to 7 points a game with just missed free throws. It easily cost us a game or two,” Schafer acknowledged. “It’s definitely been a point of emphasis this year. I believe we’ll get better.”
Another focal point is taking care of the basketball and reducing turnovers.
“We shouldn’t be making bad passes,” Schafer said. “Our mistakes should be because of good, hard-nosed play rather than forcing things and trying to do things we can’t do. So we’re still a bit of a work in progress, but getting better and better.”
Because of the depth, practices have been very competitive.
“When we substitute this year, it’s not going to be a big deal,” Schafer noted. “There will be a little pressure on the starters. If they don’t perform, I have other girls that will. That type of competition will only make us better.”
Less than a week before the opening game, Schafer was not set on a starting lineup. But he is fairly set on the eight-player rotation.
Senior Sidney Webster is one of the captains and has done a good job being a leader on the team.
“We need her to be more aggressive on the floor,” Schafer said. “She’s one of our taller players. Sidney can shoot it a little and guards well.”
Juniors Aly Armstrong, Bria Barr and Shelby Myers will also be in that rotation.
Armstrong is a three-year starter at guard and is one of the team captains this year.
“She just continues to get better,” the coach said. “She shoots the ball well and rebounds well for her size. She has a calming effect on the floor.”
Schafer describes Barr as a spark plug.
“She has shown a lot of improvement over the summer,” he said. “She has worked very hard to earn a spot. She’s a slasher that likes to drive to the basket. She’s a tough kid and plays good defense.”
Myers is “one of the keys to our season,” the coach pointed out.
“She could be of the best post players in the area,” Schafer said. “If she works hard, maintains a good attitude and doesn’t fade away from the basket, she could have a phenomenal year. But it’s all up to her and how hard she wants to work.”
The sophomore group includes Carsyn Fearday, Miranda Fox, Natalie Carie and Skyler Schafer.
Fearday had a strong freshman season, earning all-conference and honorable mention all-state honors. She also led the Lady Hearts in scoring, averaging 14 points a game, and added 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
“Our offense runs through her,” Schafer said. “And she guards people, too.”
Despite being only a sophomore, Fox is regarded as “one of the best defenders I’ve ever coached,” Schafer admitted. “She and Carsyn really play great defense together.”
Fox took over the point guard duties four games into last year and averaged 5 points and 2 assists.
“She did a great job for us,” the coach noted. “She still has a ways to go with her passing, but she’s getting better. She attacks the basket, has good vision on the court and has a better understanding of our offense.”
Fox is also a team captain.
Carie didn’t see a lot of varsity action last year, but Schafer is really impressed with how her game improved during the summer.
“A fire was lit under her. She made the all-tournament team at one of our tournaments this summer in Indianapolis,” he said. “I think she’s starting to realize the type of player she could be. Natalie could be a big part of our success this season.”
Schafer said Carie is a good scorer and “is a force” at the top of the press because of her long arms.
Skyler Schafer really adds to the team’s versatility.
“She can play any of the spots on the floor,” said Coach Schafer about his daughter. “She’s probably our most improved player, along with Bria. Skyler is a good defender, can score and doesn’t make many mistakes.”
After opening the season at home Tuesday against Pana, the Lady Hearts will compete in the Bob Kerans Tournament in Newton, scheduled for Monday, Nov. 21 through Friday, Nov. 25.
Mattoon is the favorite to win the Apollo Conference, with Effingham and Charleston figuring to also be in the race. The Lady Hearts will open league play December 1 at Charleston.
“I’m anxious for the season to get underway,” Schafer said. “I feel really good about this team.”