New coach, new attitude: Neal era begins for Lady Devils

EHS girls’ head basketball coach Steven Neal enters his first year at the helm of the program after serving as the boys’ freshman coach for the last three seasons. (COURTESY PHOTO)

With six seniors, team will rely on experience, grit

With the start of the 2022-23 girls’ basketball season just a week away, new EHS head coach Steven Neal is pleased with what he’s seen in practice so far.

“Practices have been going really well — it’s one of those things where you always want more, but the girls are excited, and I’m excited,” said Neal, who takes over the reins from former head coach Stormy Dolezal. “We’ve been doing two-a-days, and pushing ourselves as hard as we can. There’s been a lot of positivity, a lot of energy in practice.”

The Lady Devils posted a 9-14 record last year (2-7 in the 4A Southwest Quadrant), and failed to qualify for the 4A State Tournament for the fourth straight season. Dolezal stepped down after the 2020-21 campaign for family reasons, leaving the door open for a new culture and a new coach. She didn’t leave the cupboard bare for her replacement, however — Evanston returns six seniors, as well as a handful of juniors who logged varsity court time last season.

“Our seniors look really good — they’re a well-seasoned group, with several of them having pretty substantial varsity time,” Neal said. “We have Emily Sawyer in the post, Kendall Fessler at guard and Brinkley Francom and Halle Brady, who are both excellent shooters. Ellie Asay is one of our better defenders, and Autumn Hansen will be another strong post for us, as well.”

Neal said this year’s juniors will push their senior teammates, challenging them for playing time.

“We have Jaycee Bardsley coming up — she’s a really athletic kid,” Neal explained. “We have Addi Burton and Kalli Fackrell, two really solid defenders in their own right. We have another really good post in Rhyen Debenham, who we think will give us some solid minutes.”

Lady Devils basketball has always had a culture of hard work and scrappy play, and Neal said that won’t change under his watch.

“We have to really credit the previous coaches, these girls came in really well-prepared,” Neal said. “We’re going to be really strong defensively, and some things that we’ve been working on are some things they’ve been showing growth in, really a run-and-gun style. They’ve been shooting the ball a lot, they’ve been pushing the pace a lot. They’ve really started to hone in as a team — their passing is a lot crisper. We want to limit our turnover this year, and play some really solid, team defense. They’re getting better at isolation defense, which then leads to better team defense.”

Neal — who served as the boys’ freshman coach for the past three seasons under Red Devils head coach Rob Watsabaugh and former coach Lex Cornia — said he’s frequently asked about making the switch from coaching boys to coaching girls; he led the freshman boys to a 19-4 record last season.

“The transition has been smooth — the girls are fully capable of doing all of the things the boys have done,” Neal said. “The boys were a great group, I loved working with them. With the girls it really hasn’t been a huge change. When people ask me what’s new, how’s it different, I tell them, ‘Very little is new — I’m coaching basketball, and they’re great kids.’”

As for the players he’ll be relying on to lead the team this season, Neal said he’s looking forward to what his seniors have to offer, especially Emily Sawyer in the post. Sawyer played in all 23 games last season, averaging 6.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

“I’m really excited to see what Emily Sawyer does this year — she’s a post with a lot of varsity experience,” Neal said. “She can not only dictate offensively and defensively in the post, but she’s a surprisingly good shooter, as well, that can really stretch the floor on the outside.”

Fessler joins Sawyer as the players returning with the most varsity experience, and Neal said he’s impressed with her toughness and attitude. Fessler also played in every game last season, averaging 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

“Kendall Fessler can drive the ball really well, and she’s been improving her shot, day in and day out,” Neal said. “She’s also a really tough defender.”

Brady sat out last season with an injury, though fellow seniors Asay and Francom saw time at the varsity level. Francom played in 14 games last season, averaging 1.5 points and 1.4 rebounds per game.

“Ellie Asay has shown me really good defense, and really good ball control,” Neal said. “She has a lot of basketball IQ and is very savvy. Halle Brady shoots the ball incredibly well, and Brinkley Francom brings the whole package — she shoots the ball really well, she’s a tall defender, and she also has a high basketball IQ.”

Hansen played in just one varsity game last season, but was an integral part of the JV squad, and has worked hard in the offseason, according to Neal.

“Autumn Hansen has been one of our most-improved players — she’s getting better and better, every single day,” Neal said. “She can play both ends of the floor really well.”

The Lady Devils will open the 2022-23 season next weekend at the Oil City Tip-Off in Casper, with games scheduled against Natrona County, Cheyenne East and Cheyenne Central. East is the defending 4A State Champion, while Natrona finished fourth.

“We’re optimistic — we’re looking to see what we’re capable of in Casper,” Neal said. “I’m using this tournament in Casper as a measuring stick for us, see how we match up against the rest of the state. It’s a process — I’m a new coach, so the girls are learning my system, and how I do things. A lot of our time so far has been spent doing that. We don’t ever want to overlook the fundamentals, so that’s something we’re hitting every day — ball handling, passing, defense, all of that.”