Lady Panthers ready for season

Lenoir City High School's Marah Norwood, left, drives to the goal during a game against Heritage High School last season.

The sounds of whistles blowing and shoes scuffling echoed in the Lenoir City High School gym Monday afternoon as the LCHS Lady Panthers basketball team took to the court for their first official practice of the 2019 season.

“With 15 freshmen, there were some rough spots,” Tim Smith, LCHS head girls basketball coach, said. “I want them to play hard and when you’re not able to get in and work on anything, it’s tough. The first couple of days is learning how to practice. We got in and worked on offense, defense and got an inbounds play in. Just trying to get the little things like learning how to catch the ball, how not to over-dribble and all those little things just require you ... if you want to be a good player, you’ve got to be able to take care of it and shoot it.”

The Lady Panthers participated in several summer camps and exhibitions, but have also put in many hours outside the gym to get in shape.

“After Labor Day, we started more conditioning, open gyms and that kind of stuff,” Smith said. “We’ve been doing that for almost two months and just progressed from two days, three days a week, four days and the last two weeks we’ve been doing five days. That’s kind of where we’re at, trying to get ourselves in shape for all that’s about to happen.”

The team has learned to adjust after losing All-District 4-3A players Brooke Duff and Faith Simmons to graduation. However, the roster suffered an unexpected blow this summer when talented guard Emily Gonzalez transferred to Bearden High School.

Smith will heavily rely on the large sophomore class, led by Madison Graves, Emma Jenkins, Marah Norwood, Perry Moore and others.

“We’re little, so that makes it difficult, but our hard work makes up for it,” Jenkins said. “Right now, our only advantage is to outwork everyone and run faster than everyone. In practice, we really emphasize on that. Everyone around here is really supportive of each other and we treat each other like a family. I’m going to have to step up because of our age. I’m also big on encouraging people. I’m always making noise, making sure everyone knows what to do and how to fix it.”

Jenkins admitted her nerves after being thrust into action as a freshmen, but believes that experience helped expedite her development as a dynamic player.

“It was very valuable because if I wasn’t fed to wolves like I was last year, I would not be where I’m at right now,” she said. “I’m happy that he did because if it wasn’t for him pushing us like he did, we would not have won as many games as we did, and we would not have improved like we did.”

When it comes to experience, this year’s team may be the youngest in Smith’s high school coaching career.

“Experience-wise, I think yeah, it’s probably the youngest I’ve had in years,” Smith said. “Ciara (Uphoff) started last year, so that’ll be three kids that started a lot. Even that, it’s just a lot of one-year starts. I don’t have a lot of three-year starters or two or three of those, and that’s what I did have. I think that experience will show up at times, I’m afraid.”

Just like last season, Smith will look to several incoming freshmen to help on varsity.

“We’ve got a couple of freshmen, Kaley Clabough, Natalie Johnson,” he said. “They’re going to have to do some things really well for us. I think they can if they take care of the ball. Mallory Hurst and Katelyn Kilgore are two freshmen that came in and have really good size. They’re still freshmen, though. We can’t rely on them to win games, but maybe we can get them to help us a little bit down there. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

Similar to last year, the Lady Panthers will only have two seniors — Ciara Uphoff and Madison Stephens. Juniors Christa Angelos, Jordan Gresham and Lydia Yarborough will see action as well.

“We did have two seniors last year, and they really stepped up, did big things,” Uphoff said. “I think we’re going to try to be like that and go be positive leaders, but also make a big impact on the court and in games. I think my role for them is trying to make them understand what’s going on and being able to lift them up. They’re going to have some troubles like being inexperienced on the court, so I’m definitely going to try my best to help them and also try to be the glue that holds this team together so it doesn’t fall apart.”

Lenoir City’s schedule is loaded with challenges, and Smith projects the district to be tough again.

“It’s going to be hard because we just don’t have the size inside,” he said. “The Maryvilles and Beardens are just going to be stout all around, very good. Heritage has been at the lower end, but I think they’re trending upward. They’ve got a lot of depth and kids that play hard. I think William Blount has a good five, but they may face some depth issues. Hardin Valley’s kind of like us, I think. West lost a couple of players, but they’re going to be athletic. We’re going to have play well, and we don’t have any nights where we can just show up.

The Lady Panthers’ season will start at 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at home against the Coalfield School Lady Yellow Jackets.