High School Sports

The buzz is big about New Athens’ Yellow Jackets


New Athens girls basketball coach Erik Hager had a feeling the 2014-15 season would be special for the Yellow Jackets.

With several players, including leading scorer Denae White, returning from a squad that won the Cahokia Conference Kaskaskia Division title a year ago, Hager knew expectations would be as high as ever as his team prepared for the start of the season in early November.

But even Hager still has trouble believing the Yellow Jackets won their first 24 games before suffering a 45-37 loss to Centralia Christ Our Rock Lutheran School on Friday.

“Unbelievable. With everybody returning from last year except one girl, I knew we would be good. But I don’t know if you can ever expect to win your first 24 games in a season,’’ Hager said. “We just have a bunch of good girls who are good athletes and good basketball players.’’

The top seed in their own Class 1A New Athens Regional, the Yellow Jackets will look to put an exclamation point on perhaps the finest season in school history with a long postseason run.

New Athens will take on either fourth-seed Okawville or fifth-seed Marissa in a regional semifinal at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

A possible rematch with second-seeded Christ our Rock Lutheran in the title game could be in store for New Athens on Thursday.

But the basketball court isn’t the only place New Athens has excelled in the past two years.

Many of the New Athens players are two- and three-sport athletes who have been part of successful softball and volleyball teams.

The Yellow Jackets placed fourth in the Class A state volleyball tournament two years ago and advanced to the super-sectional last fall.

In other words, the Yelow Jackets know how to win.

“I think that’s an important point. These girls are all very good athletes and they know what it takes to win. They have the confidence that when things get tight in games, and we have been in several close games this season, they will do the right things to help their team be successful,’’ Hager said.

“But it didn’t just start in high school, either. These girls had a tremendous amount of success in junior high as well.’’

White (13.2 points) leads a balanced New Athens scoring attack, but the key for the Yellow Jackets is their balanced attack. Alina Lance (9.7) and Abby Marlow (8.7) have also had big games this season for New Athens, as has Anisa Al Bori (6.8) and Aleen Dutkanych (5.3).

Defensively, New Athens has allowed 30 or fewer points in 14 games.

“This is an extremely well-grounded group of athletes. They come to practice ready to go and they work very hard,’’ Hager said. “Then in games there is no animosity as far as who scores the most points or who leads us in rebounds or assists on a given night. These kids are all about the team and being successful as a group.

“On the court, they are very unselfish, sometimes to a fault when they make an extra pass when it’s not needed. But you can’t teach that.’’

While revenge will be on the minds of the Yellow Jackets should they meet Christ our Rock Lutheran on Thursday, Hager isn’t looking ahead.

A probable semifinal with Okawville looms on Tuesday and while the Rockets have had a tough season, Hager knows they are dangerous.

“I don’t think you can ever look past Okawville with all of their tradition. Plus they play a very difficult schedule with many Class 2A and Class 3A schools,’’ Hager said. “Plus everybody wants to be the one to knock off a No. 1 seed. We need to be ready and with this group there is no doubt in my mind that we will be.

“We’ve got a tough road ahead of us. We’re just looking at them one at a time.’’