With three returning seniors and a talented crew of juniors, the Evanston High School girls’ basketball team has high hopes for the 2020-21 season.
If COVID-19 doesn’t throw a wrench into the works, that is.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed that it keeps going,” said EHS head coach Jeremy Fessler. “So far so good for us.”
The Lady Red Devils failed to qualify for the 4A State Tournament in 2019-20, finishing 9-14 during a season that showed promise at times, but was bogged down by inconsistent play. With COVID changing the landscape of play across the state, Fessler said this year’s team needs to focus on the positive: They get to play basketball.
“It’s exciting that we’re here and playing, first of all,” he said. “The girls and the coaching staff are super-excited to lace them up and play up in Sheridan and Gillette this weekend.”
The Lady Devils return three seniors from last year’s squad — Heidi Barton, Kambree Brown and Nyeli Mota — and Fessler said the trio have embraced their leadership roles.
“Our three seniors have been doing a great job in practice, keeping us going. When there’s a lull in practice, Heidi and Kambree are really good at getting the girls fired up. Nayeli is a little bit quieter, but they all three are really good at keeping us going.”
Fessler also has a talented crew of seven juniors and a sophomore back for the team this year, all of whom have varsity experience.
“Every junior got into at least one varsity game last season, as well as a sophomore, Emily Sawyer,” he said. “We might have another sophomore who sees some minutes at varsity, as well.”
Junior Stacia Barker saw the most time at the varsity level last season — a 6’1 post, she averaged 4.6 points per game, and led the team in rebounds (7.2) and blocks (1.2) as a sophomore. Fessler will look to Barker to be more of an offensive presence this season.
“Defensively, Stacia was very good for us last season,” he said. “Offensively, she struggled finishing throughout the year, but at the end of the year at Regionals, she did really good. As I got to see her this summer, and watching her these first two weeks of practice, she is a completely different player offensively — she has confidence, she’s making post moves and she’s finishing around the basket.”
Other juniors include Mia Barker, Kaitlin Deru, Mackenzie Porter, Abbie Rigby, Melia Wilson and Lily Johnson.
“Our juniors are basketball-smart, all seven of them,” Fessler said. “So we’re going to be able to do a little bit more this year with presses, and stuff. They’re tough — if they can get the mental part, and not get so flustered, we can be very solid.”
Due to COVID restrictions, this season will look a little different, most notably in the lack of attendance at games. At least initially, only 100 spectators will be allowed in the gyms, with EHS using a ticket system for its events. Games will be streamed on the NFHS Network and/or mylocalradio.com.
Practices and day-to-day operations of putting together a season have also proved difficult to adjust to.
“It has been challenging — there’s a ton more work on my end, with tickets, filling out forms, planning meals, that kind of thing,” Fessler said. “All of that non-basketball stuff has doubled this year, which is hard. On the court, we mask up when we’re not in a drill — when you get into a drill, you can take it off. It’s all been a challenge, but we’re making our way through it. The girls have been awesome with everything they’ve had to deal with, and getting through all that.”
The Lady Devils open their season this weekend with a trio of tough games on the road, starting with Sheridan on Thursday. Evanston will square off against Thunder Basin — ranked No. 1 in WyoPrep’s pre-season poll — Friday night at the REMAX Tournament in Gillette; they’ll round out the weekend against Campbell County Saturday afternoon.
“This first weekend is basically a scrimmage for us,” Fessler explained. “With COVID, you’re only allowed 10 minutes of scrimmage time a day, so this weekend will be the first time we can really see what we can do. We have a long way to go against three quality opponents — It’s a measuring stick, plus we get to see three teams from the other side of the state.”
“We didn’t have a summer, so we didn’t get to see the girls play, and how they were progressing,” he added. “There are a lot of questions going into this weekend, and that’s what this is all about — finding out who we are. What works, and what doesn’t.”
With every team in the state working through the same restrictions and protocols, Fessler said he expects to see a little rust from everyone. That said, the weekend will be an excellent barometer.
“I don’t know a lot about Sheridan — we haven’t played them in three or four years,” Fessler said. “But I know Thunder Basin and Gillette are going to pressure us constantly. They spread you out offensively, and shoot a lot of threes; they use their athleticism to wear you down. Our guards have to have a huge weekend with controlling the ball, and not getting flustered. They’re quality opponents, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a great weekend to go see where we are.”