DALZELL - The Thomas Sumter Academy varsity girls basketball team seems to be picking up right where it left off after last year's state championship season, and head coach B.J. Reed attributes that to the culture surrounding the program and the willingness of her players to take the lessons of the game to heart.
TSA lost much of its scoring, defensive intensity and floor leadership with the graduation of Bree Stoddard and Logan Morris. Stoddard averaged nearly 20 points per game, and Morris was key to a stifling defense that regularly held the Generals' opponents under 25 points.
This year's Generals are 4-0 to start the 2017-18 campaign heading into this weekend's Baron Classic at Wilson Hall's Nash Student Center. That includes a 20-point road victory over 3A foe Laurence Manning, home-and-home wins over Richard Winn and a road victory over Pee Dee Academy. They'll have a tough test ahead of them in Wilson Hall, a team Reed credits with spurring her team to improve itself last season and winning most of its remaining games with relative ease.
"When the switch really turned on for us last year, it's kind of funny to say, was after our loss at Wilson Hall," Reed said of the 33-14 defeat. "We just didn't have the energy in the second half of the game, and Wilson Hall just took us to the woodshed. We came back after that and we elevated our practices against each other to make each other sharper. That's when we really started focusing on defense, and that focus has translated into this year. It's been great."
Reed said she has been pleased with the way her team has responded to the challenge of replacing Stoddard and Morris.
"You never want to say that people are irreplaceable, but when you're talking about leadership and just the experience lost with those two, you lose more than just basketball," Reed said. "It was going to be really interesting to see how this year was going to be, and I have just been so pleased with how the girls have stepped up. They aren't living on what happened last year; it's all about what they can do this year. They're very focused on just playing their game.
"There's not one girl on our team that can step up and replace Bree's 20 points per game, but what's been great is we can spread that over five or six people, and that's what we've done," Reed said. "Our motto this year is not about our offense, it's about we've got to keep the other team from scoring one more point than us. Our focus is defense."
Reed said her team is dedicated to holding its opponents to one shot and creating scoring opportunities off of defensive rebounds and turnovers.
"Last year, there were times when it might be that Bree had 20 points and one or two others had four," she said. "This year, we had a game with two girls in double figures, two girls with nine, two girls with eight and one with six. We really have spread our scoring out - every girl that starts and those that come off the bench can all make shots. If anything has been a surprise to me, it's the amount of points we've been able to score.
"I have an expectation for defense," she added, but said she didn't know what to expect on offense. "It's been a great surprise the way we've been able to spread the points around and still be able to put points on the board.
The Generals are led by three senior returning starters in center Taja Hunley, forward Carmen Silvester and point guard Josie Reed. Junior Aubrey Stoddard, Bree's younger sister, has picked up right where she left off last season, according to Reed, averaging 14 points per game and shooting 91 percent from the free throw line. Junior Sydney Daniel, together with Josie Reed, has picked up her game on the defensive end and the two have been able to fill the gap left by Morris' graduation.
"Those four (playoff) games, she was dynamic," Reed said of Aubrey Stoddard. "People were focused on Bree, and we had others that could score and she stepped up and got it done. She has continued that through our first four games."
"Every girl on our team right now has basically one year of varsity experience. They're the ones that have never been counted on in big games," Reed said. "When I look at what we've done this season, we've done some really exciting things. We played against a tough, experienced team in Pee Dee Academy, and it came down to having to hit some shots down the stretch and free throws down the stretch, and it was girls that weren't called upon last year to do that.
"That's what's exciting - the girls are ready to step up into that role," Reed said.
The Generals will have their first big test Friday night in the Baron Classic.
"I'm excited about Friday night," Reed said. "Wilson Hall's got a great team. I love playing them because they have so much athleticism, they're so fast, Glen Rector is a great coach and it's going to be a great game. It's a great litmus test for both of us to find out where we are."