Pats think big in bid for more forward progress

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Junior Madi Fella, left, returns to the starting lineup along with classmate Greer Neff for a Heritage Hills team that finished 12-10 last season. It was the Patriots’ first winning season in four years, and they’ll shoot to extend the progress this season, which kicks off Saturday with a road game at Eastern Greene.

By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer

Madi Fella doesn’t feel any added pressure.

The 6-foot-2 junior for the Heritage Hills girls basketball squad has been the tallest player on her team for as long as she can remember. That extra burden — the rebounding, the fouls, the minutes — hasn’t affected her much, even on the eve of the Patriots’ 2013-14 season, which tips off Saturday afternoon at Eastern Greene.

But that expected role has grown tremendously. Heritage Hills graduated three of its top five scorers from last year’s squad that fell to Mitchell by three points in the Class 3A sectional opener. How Heritage Hills will replace the departed players is still somewhat of a mystery, even to coach Kim Brown.

“We’re trying to figure that out. It’s going to be an ongoing process,” Brown said of her team’s offensive identity this year. “Obviously, we’d love to get the ball into (CJ Nance) and Madi — a lot.”

That will be the biggest strategy for a Patriot program looking to avoid any backward slides after increasing its win total the last two seasons. A year ago, a 12-10 finish was a welcome result after finishing 8-15 and 2-20 in the prior two seasons.

But that continued improvement must face some challenges at first, as Heritage Hills learns how to conduct an offense without guard Hayli Scott (10 ppg) and forward Kaebra LaGrange (9 ppg).
As of now, Brown’s plan is to deliver the ball inside to Fella (5.2 ppg) and the 5-foot-10 Nance (1.7 ppg). The two create a formidable matchup with their size, but Brown said the next step is for the pair to adopt the aggressive style necessary to score consistently in the paint.

“(We’re) trying to get CJ and Madi to be a little more selfish,” Brown said. “They like to spread it around almost too much. They’re standing a foot from the basket and they’re passing the ball.”

“I’m hoping it’ll be a good high-low tandem,” she added. “I would foresee teams really trying to lock down Madi because they’re not familiar with CJ very much. I think Madi will do a really good job looking for CJ and vice versa.”

“Me and CJ have to learn to work together a lot more, rather than just relying on an older source to give it off to. We have to take it together,” Fella said.

As for the other starters, the question will be whether the Patriots can develop outside shooting to solidify an inside-out attack. Starter Greer Neff (5.2 ppg) returns at point guard as a junior and is joined in the backcourt by sophomore Paige Priest, who received time off the bench as a freshman. The lone senior, 5-foot-4 Kayala Hoppenjans, will start at the 3 position in what Brown describes as a “swing forward.”

After that, Brown plans to use two juniors off the bench, guard Kelsey Heckel and forward Shellby Graham. Brown said she expects to stick to a seven-girl unit, and the small rotation means the Patriots will employ a zone defense for the first time in Brown’s three-year tenure. It also means relying on points from seven girls who averaged less than 16 ppg as a group last season.

But one thing last year’s senior group did instill on the team was tremendous leadership ability, and that alone gives Brown assurance.

“Those three girls that graduated, we can’t replace them,” Brown said. “Their leadership was unbelievable. And because their leadership was so good, these girls have a lot of confidence.”
Neff feels the same, although she sees a group that will improve without relying so heavily on one or two players.

“In the past we’ve relied on two people like Hayli and Kaebra, but this year, I’d say this year we’re all kind of taking on leadership roles so we all know what’s expected of each other,” Neff added. “It’s not put on all one person. ... Win together, lose together, this team is going to consist of everyone. Like last year, if Kaebra played bad, didn’t score much, we probably lose. If Hayli played bad, didn’t score much, we probably lose. Whereas this team, everyone is going to have to take their own part and it’s going to be split up pretty evenly.”

In the three weeks of practice, Brown has seen reasons to be hopeful. She said Nance has improved her assertiveness around the basket from last season, and while the team’s shots have not necessarily been falling, the girls are at least getting looks on the outside. The next step is for someone to realize, without Brown’s constant prodding, the kind of play it’ll take to score points in bunches.

“Right now, nobody wants to take that give-me-the-ball role,” she said. “We’re going to have to work into that. ... It’s going to happen in a game. Somebody’s going to see the light and go, ”˜Oh, now I understand.’”

All the uncertainties make for a fun or nerve-racking start of the season, depending on how you look at it, Brown said. Now, Brown is hoping for some answers in the form of wins.

“I don’t want to go backwards,” Brown said. “I want at least what we had last year and maybe more. We’ve talked about it a little bit. ... Some people might look at it like a rebuilding year, but we’ve got a lot of experience. I would like (to say) ”˜reloading.’ New people, different spots, but keep moving forward.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com.




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