Now in her third season and already the dean of the city’s three high school girls basketball coaches, Belleville East’s Amanda Kemezys will lead an experienced, but young team into the season without knowing exactly what to expect.
The season begins for the Lancers against Highland at the Salem Thanksgiving Tournament on Friday.
The Lancers’ 2015-16 season was a good one. They won 20 games, finished second in the Southwestern Conference and gave state power Edwardsville a run at the Class 4A Alton Sectional before losing by 12 points.
East must replace three of its top four scorers from a year ago, but it does bring back sophomore point guard Kaylah Rainey. As Kemezys sees it, the return of Rainey is a good start.
The 5-foot-7 Rainey was a first team All-Southwestern Conference selection last year after averaging 11 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals a game.
She starts this season in the spotlight having been named on the ESPN HoopGurlz 100 Watch List for the Class of 2019.
“It’s a cool accolade for Kaylah. I don’t know if we’ve ever had anybody around here have an accolade like this before. I’m not sure they had things like this way back when,” Kemezys said. “But she is very deserving of this honor because of the amount of work she puts in.
“Kaylah is a great player but she’s also a great kid and an excellent student. She’s the kind of person you want to represent your basketball program.”
While Rainey returns, Kemezys must try to find replacements for graduates Ellisha Davis and Morgan St. James along with Myriah Haywood who transferred to Edwardsville prior to the start of the school year.
“I really like this group of girls we have on this basketball team,” Kemezys said. “We have high expectations of our student-athletes in this basketball program both in the classroom and on the basketball court and these girls work very hard to excel in both. It’s a group of girls that I enjoy working with in practice everyday.”
While most of the attention will center around Rainey, Kemezys also has high hopes for junior guard Brittney Nitz. The Lancers’ 3-point field goal leader with 26 a year ago, Nitz saw action in 29 of 30 games and averaged five points per game.
Nitz will be counted on to take the pressure off Rainey who figures to be the focus of opposing defenses.
“We’re going to need some of the other girls to really step up,” Kemezys said. “Brittney is one of those players who logged a lot of minutes for us last year and she’s a knock-down three-point shooter with deep range. She’s worked hard to improve the other parts of her game and I think could be the most improved player on this year.”
Junior guard Jailyn McClenny also returns and is a defensive stopper and can get to the rim on offense. Senior guard Rachel Collins bring experience despite suffering through some injuries a year ago after transferring from Althoff.
Junior Ariana Glass is another quick guard who isn’t afraid to take the ball to the basket, while sophomore Jaila Parker saw time as a freshman and is expected to see considerable time at the small forward spot.
Leading the way in the post will be Grace Tantillo, who at 5-foot-6 will be the smallest power forward in the SWC. But Kemezys feels Tantillo is strong enough to be hold her own. Seniors Destiny Johnson and Camille Riley are both 5-foot-11 post players who will see added minutes this season.
Sophomores Jada Brooks, Bryce Dowell and Nyah Ford round out the Lancers’ roster.