It would have been easy for veteran coach Clayton Fisher and the Belleville West Maroons to throw in the towel early in the 2017-18 season. But they didn’t.
Back in charge of the Maroons program after a two year hiatus, Fisher took over a West program which had finished 18-12 the previous season. But his top three returning players — Sydney Thurwalker, B’Aunce Carter and Chamya Darough — transferred to other Southwestern Conference schools.
With only three seniors on the roster, the Maroons began the season losing 10 of their first 11 games.
“It was a learning experience for everybody,’’ Fisher recalled. “We did a lot of work on fundamentals and the basics early in the season. But to the girls credit, they stayed with it and we got better as the season went on.’’
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Led by those seniors and one of the top sophomores in the SWC in 6-foot forward Shaniah Nunn, West rebounded to win seven of its final 18 games, including a first round regional contest against Alton, to finish 8-21.
This year with Nunn, a year older and much stronger back to lead the way, West could contend for a top four finish in the conference.
Nunn finished her sophomore season averaging a team best 10.1 points, shooting 53 percent from the field and pulling down nearly eight rebounds per game.
“Shaniah actually had a very good season. She even advanced to the state tournament 3-point contest at the end of the year. She didn’t shoot any 3’s for us during the season,’’ Fisher said with a smile. “She had a good off-season and has gotten stronger. We’re going to move her out on the court a little more and give her a chance shoot from the perimeter.
“But she will play inside too. With her and (6-2) junior Keijah Gray, it gives us an added presence and could pose some matchup problems for some teams.’’
Gray, who did not play basketball a year ago, is also expected to play a key role for the Maroons who opened their season on Saturday with a 50-33 loss to Missouri power Hazelwood Central at the O’Fallon Tournament.
While Nunn and Gray will be key players for the Maroons, Fisher also returns several others who played on the varsity squad a year ago.
Senior guard Tykiaza Jones is an athletic 5-7 guard who averaged four points a game. Senior Mikayla Chapman (4.2 ppg.) returns as does Randi Goodwin (6.4 in 17 games).
Senior guard Myana Lampley (2 ppg) played in all 29 games last season and will be a key in the Maroons backcourt while junior Aleia Watson will come off the bench.
While the Maroons will be athletic and quick, they will also be young. Playing a schedule which includes O’Fallon, Mascoutah and Highland Tournaments, along with the annual 12-game Southwestern Conference slate, Fisher knows that the goal for this team will be to improve as the season goes on.
“Our schedule is among the toughest in southern Illinois. We play everybody,’’ Fisher said. “We’re in three great tournaments, our nonconference schedule is very good and the (SWC) conference is loaded with Edwardsville, East St. Louis, Belleville East and O’Fallon all being very strong. I hear Collinsville should be good as well and Alton is improved.
Seniors Avery Bennett and Makenzie Burke also return for West which is expected to use freshmen guards Reese Burke and Lamiya Terrell in the backcourt a lot this season.
“We need our guards to be able to handle the basketball and the two freshmen look like they can do it pretty well,’’ Fisher said. “As a coach you want to win games, but I want this to be a fun experience for these kids as well.
“I love working with kids and seeing them work hard and improve. We got better as the season went on last year and my hope is that the same thing will happen this season. I think we will.’’