Perhaps the biggest adjustment this year’s Manhattan High girls’ basketball team will make is learning to play without Elayna Spilker.
(Manhattan High’s Caroline Ballard pulls up for a jumper during a game last season at MHS. The Indians open the season Friday at home against Derby, beginning at 6 p.m.)
Fortunately for this group, the Indians spent a couple months figuring out just how to do that last season.
One of two starters to graduate off last year’s team alongside Kristen Thompson, Spilker missed more than a month of last season with a nagging foot injury, forcing head coach Scott Mall to lean on a younger group of players who will now see a more prominent role.
“Those girls really worked hard this summer to gain experience,” Mall said. “Savannah Roberts, Savannah Thaemert, Molly Fiser and Amara Ehie, those girls have really stepped up and have played well in practice, hopefully they keep it up in the games.
“And Kylie James and Erika Hairgrove give us some depth inside that we’ll definitely need. We’ll need all of them, we’ll probably play eight or nine girls that all bring something different, but they do a good job of mixing together.”
Spilker will be difficult to replace, not only because of her point production and her free-throw shooting ability, but also what her presence did to the opposing defense. Her ability to slice through the lane and finish through contact made her a tough matchup for opposing guards and often drew the attention of the opponents’ defense, creating open looks for other Indians.
Mall said he will lean on senior Par McNair to handle the ball and get into the lane off the dribble.
“It’s hard — you can’t replace the girls we lost, you just have to make up what you can,” he said. “Par gives us some ability to get some penetration, and that will help out a little bit there to balance that out. The other girls, we’ll just have to use their abilities. We’ve got some girls shooting the ball better from the outside, so hopefully that will be a plus for us this year.”
Of course, the Indians’ success this year will likely start with the scoring tandem of Darby Price and Caroline Ballard. Easily the top two scorers off last year’s team, they have the ability to work together and keep the defense from double-teaming the other.
“The three girls, with Caroline and Darby on the inside and Par on the outside, it’s good balance and good leadership,” Mall said. “They have the ability to score and to help other people score — it’s really nice.”
With so many girls back from last year, Mall has high expectations for this team. Last year, the Indians ended up on the outside looking in at state tournament time, losing in the sub-state final to Wichita Heights. The Falcons are now in Class 5A, though the team replacing them — Lawrence Free State — is no slouch, finishing last year 16-6.
“They’ve all worked hard to improve from last year,” Mall said. “So we’ve set our sights high this year and hopefully we put pressure on ourselves to get even better.”
With no one on the roster above 6-foot, the Indians will be undersized again. Mall said the team will have to work on its rebounding and post defense if it wants to realize its goals.
“One thing is our rebounding,” Mall said. “We’ve not rebounded well. You get complacent in practice because the other girls are the same size as we are, but you have to realize when we get into varsity games, they’re not. Most of the teams are going to be bigger than us, so we have to do a better job with that, and there’s always defensive things you need to work on.”
Facing Derby in the season opener Friday at 6 p.m., Manhattan will face a team similar in size, but will have to find a way to shut down do-it-all guard Madi Greenwood. Normally a good shooter, Greenwood scored 13 points on 5-of-30 shooting in last season’s opener, effectively shooting her team out of the game. In the second matchup at sub-state, Greenwood was better, but still finished 4 of 16 from the floor but scored a team-high 16 points. Keying in on her will be important if the Indians want to start the year 1-0.
“(Greenwood) was really good the second time when we played them in sub-state,” Mall said. “She’s an excellent player and she’s back. They lost a good forward that graduated and they had another one who was hurt in volleyball season, so I don’t know if she’ll play or not.
“They have a new coach this year, so we’re not sure what to prepare for, but I assume they’ll be very aggressive on defense, they’re going to push the ball and we’ll have to contain the Greenwood girl, because we didn’t do a good job with that last year.”