EVANSTON — The Evanston High School girls’ basketball team began practice Monday, and head coach Jeremy Fessler said the young team is showing good intensity in its first few practices.
“They’re struggling a little bit transitioning from drill to drill,” he said. “We just have a lot of catching up to do with girls knowing where they need to be and when they need to be there.”
The Lady Devils are coming off a 13-12 season that saw them finish second in the 4A Southwest quadrant and just miss a state tournament berth. Despite only three players with varsity experience returning this season, Fessler said the team will play a tough, physical brand of basketball.
“The key for this season is how well the girls who don’t have as much experience fill in their roles,” he said. “It will be about how much better they get as the season goes on, because we’re going to be playing some younger girls. When that all starts to mesh, we’ll start to figure it out.”
Senior guards Taryn Wagstaff and Amber Lowe and senior post Zocia Nowakowski are the three Lady Devils Fessler will be relying on to provide leadership to the younger players. Fellow seniors Tianna Pierce and Maggie Moore will also be called on to do their share.
“We sat down with all the seniors and came up with expectations, what culture we want to build, what goals we have for this team,” Fessler said. “We don’t really talk about goals as far as where we want to end up with our record — we talked more about the process this year, rather than the final event.”
That process includes setting goals for practice and goals the team will have during games.
“Hopefully if we’re doing the things we need to in this process, we’ll get to where we want to ... by the end of the year,” Fessler said.
After tying for second place in their quad last season, the Lady Devils lost the tie-breaker, putting them as the No. 3 seed going into the 4A West tournament. After trouncing Cody in the opening round, Evanston lost a pair of heartbreakers to Star Valley and Rock Springs and were eliminated from state tournament consideration.
“We competed all season, we just didn’t have enough offense at times,” Fessler said. “We fight, and we scratch, and that’s going to be a key for us this year. We have to find some scoring.”
The Lady Devils played .500 ball during summer play, with scoring the deciding factor in almost all of the games.
“During games where the ball went into the hole, we were winning; in games where we weren’t hitting shots, we struggled,” Fessler said. “That’s going to be a common theme for us this year ... figuring out how to score.”
Defense has become a trademark for a Fessler-coached team — heading into his fifth season at the helm, the Lady Devils have finished in the top four defensively the last four seasons.
“We haven’t had a lot of height here either, so we do that by just flying around and playing hard,” he said. “We work on defense a lot. It’s been my calling card — if you can play defense for me, we’ll figure out the offense. I think we’ll be solid again on defense.”
As for season expectations, Fessler said he’d like to see the Lady Devils improve on their mental toughness, an aspect of the game he and his staff have been addressing in the preseason.
“We have a couple of girls that, when they make a mistake, it sort of snowballs into two, or three or four mistakes,” he said. “We want to limit that. We’re pretty tough as it is, but if you get down in a game, you still want to make sure you’re always in the fight. So we’ve been preaching mental toughness.”
Another aspect of the game Fessler said he’d like to see continue to grow in his players is basketball IQ.
“Basketball is an IQ sport,” he explained. “You have to know sets, you have to know where you’re supposed to be defensively. This group this summer struggled a little bit knowing their stuff, so I’ve been preaching that. There’s a lot of learning to do mentally, so we’ve been stressing that also.”
The Lady Devils open the 2019-20 season with a tournament in Gillette Dec. 13 and 14, followed by a tournament in Green River Dec. 19 and 20. Fessler said the team will face some strong 4A teams right off the bat.
“Especially up in Gillette, there’s going to be some stiff competition,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty busy heading into Christmas break.”