BELLEVILLE — The non-stop full-court pressure defense that has helped make the Belleville West Maroons a force in the Southwestern Conference may not be as lethal during the 2013-14 season.
The Maroons still have great athletes, speed and quickness. Just not as much as in the recent past.
With super quick junior point guard Alliyah St. John out with a knee injury and Jasmine Berry opting to concentrate on a promising track and field career, the Maroons may be light in depth and experience off the bench to start the year.
"We like to get after it on defense. In the past, we've had athletes to where we could put full-court pressure and then when they got tired, we would put others in,'' Maroons coach Clayton Fisher said. "We've still got the athletes. But because we don't have maybe the depth we've had, we might not be able to put on as much pressure.''
Class 4A regional champions a year ago when the Maroons finished 22-8, West opens its season at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Cahokia at the Alton Tip-Off Classic.
Runnerup in the Southwestern Conference to Edwardsville a year ago, the Maroons return three of the top players in the area in 6-foot-5 senior Jesheon Cooper, 5-10 guard Shay Fluker and 5-10 off-guard Imani Berry to lead the way.
Entering her fourth season on the Maroons varsity roster, Cooper continues to progress. One of the top defensive post players in the area a year ago when she had 58 blocked shots and averaged 7.8 rebounds, Cooper is stronger, more agile and should be more offensive-minded this season.
Now receiving NCAA Division I interest, Cooper should also improve on an 8.1 points per game scoring average.
"Jesheon is stronger than she has ever been. She's been in the weight room and continues to do so,'' Fisher said. "She's also developed a nice little jumper from 8 to 10 feet. She'll have games this year where she'll score 22-25 points because of her size, and defensively she'll be a force because of her size and wing span in the middle.
Berry is the one of the top athletes in the area. A defensive stopper with blazing speed, Berry averaged 11 points a year ago.
"From one end of the floor to the other, Imani is as fast as they come and like (Alliyah) St. John, she can be an absolute lockdown defender,'' Fisher said. "She's quick enough and she'll go around people to the basket. Plus she's really worked on and improved her outside shot.''
Fisher hopes Fluker goes from being one of the top players in the SWC to one of the top players in the state this season. Fluker averaged 14.4 points a game last season and is much improved.
"Shay's already getting a lot of interest from college coaches,'' Fisher said. "She's just so strong that when she takes it to the basket, she's either going to get fouled or she's going to score. Plus being left-handed makes her even tougher to defend.
"Shay has also improved her 3-point shooting.
Fisher hopes to have St. John back as soon as possible. But the Maroons' coach is putting no timetable on her return.
Sophomores Erika Harvey, Breanna Allen and Kayla Juenger also played last year and should be key contributors this season.
Senior D'Aria Jackson, juniors Jaylah Jones and Rachel Abernathy along with a talented sophomore class that includes Sara Caponi and Whitney Hill will need to add depth off the bench.
Fisher said Edwardsville again should be the team to beat in the SWC. Collinsville and East St. Louis should also be better.
"Edwardsville's got two players who have signed with major D-1 programs so they're the team to beat, obviously,'' Fisher said. "East St. Louis could have two of the top post players around and I think Collinsville will be much improved.
"As for us, I think we'll have another good season This is a good group of kids who are working hard and fun to be around.''