Prior to next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, the O’Fallon girls’ basketball team will not be focused on turkey and all the trimmings. Instead the Lady Panthers will be kicking off their 2016-17 campaign with a round-robin tournament in the Panther Dome.
Last year, Coach Ryan Massey’s charges split their four tourney games. Returning the nucleus of a team that finished in a third-place tie in the Southwestern Conference with an 8-6 mark and 16-12 overall, the O’Fallon girls will tip off their winter campaign on Saturday, Nov. 19 with a first-round contest against Chatham-Glenwood. Games against McCluer North, Hazelwood Central and Breese Central will follow, through Wednesday, Nov. 23.
O’Fallon returns a core of seasoned veterans but will need to compensate for the graduation loss of second leading scorer Becca Althoff. The Lady Panthers were dealt a potentially more devastating loss just five weeks ago when 6-foot-3-inch senior Celeste Akoro suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
“The loss of Akoro forced a change of approach for our entire team,” Massey said. “Five weeks ago, we had to adjust from being a post-dominated team to one that must rely on speed and quickness to be successful. When you lose someone who was second in the St. Louis area in blocked shots last year, it has an immediate impact on how you approach the game both defensively and offensively.”
Akoro’s loss may be a big hurdle to negotiate, but the Lady Panthers will still put a team on the court that will be a handful for their opponents. Leading the charge will be three-year starter Marta Durk, the Lady Panthers’ top scorer the past two seasons. An aggressive driver and slasher, Durk has added another dimension to her offensive repertoire during the off-season, a more-consistent perimeter game.
“Marta has put in a tremendous amount of time improving her shot from beyond the arc,” Massey said. “She has been shooting 300 shots per day, building her confidence and accuracy in that aspect of her game.”
We will have good depth and experience. Most of the girls that we will put on the court are very athletic.
Ryan Massey, girls varsity basketball coach
Durk will be flanked by returnees Ebony Acoff and Tamia Cash, both of whom played integral roles for the Lady Panthers last year. Other returning players who will figure into the mix include juniors Taje Ruffin, Jayla Stubblefield and Courtney Keller. Seniors Caitlin Kayser, Divine Lane and Courtney Butler add depth to the O’Fallon roster along with junior Taylor VanAusdall and sophomore Ashley Schloer.
“We will have good depth and experience,” Massey said. “Most of the girls that we will put on the court are very athletic. Cash is extremely quick and a great defender; Ruffin is a multi-position player and very strong; and Stubblefield started for us as a sophomore and although not big is very scrappy and can score in the paint for us. Now, in the absence of Akoro, we do not have a lot of size, so we are going to have to get after it defensively and make the game more up-tempo.”
The Lady Panthers, and the rest of the SWC schools, will be chasing Edwardsville for the Southwestern Conference title. The Tigers return everyone from their championship team last year and have added a Belleville East transfer whom Massey characterized as “one of the top five players in the conference.” O’Fallon figures to be in the next tier of teams that will attempt to challenge Edwardsville’s dominance. The group includes Belleville West, Belleville East and East St. Louis.
“The personnel and the experience we have will give us a chance to be successful every time our girls step onto the court,” Massey said. “We will have to defend the post differently and spread the court to take advantage of our skills at the guard position as well as our overall quickness and athleticism. If we get those things moving in the right direction, we will be competitive throughout the season.”
After the Lady Panthers’ pre-Thanksgiving hoopfest, they will open Southwestern Conference play Wednesday, Nov. 30 with a home date against the Belleville East Lancers. Other scheduling highlights include appearances in the Mascoutah Invitational Dec. 27-29 and the Highland Optimist Tournament Jan. 14-17.