Thomas Sumter Academy's varsity girls basketball team lost a close game to The King's Academy on Dec. 13, dropping its record to 2-6 heading into the Christmas break.
That is the same record the Lady Generals possessed after eight games last …
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That is the same record the Lady Generals possessed after eight games last season, one that saw them making an improbable run to the SCISA 2A state championship game in longtime head coach B.J. Reed's final season.
With Reed having stepped down, TSA has turned to 22-year-old Tanner Brunson to lead the program. Brunson spent 11 years at Thomas Sumter, graduating in 2015. He then went to Charleston Southern where he earned his degree in just 3 1/2 years. That half-year head start gave him the opportunity to serve as Reed's assistant coach during the team's surge to the state title game. Since then, he's been named as Reed's successor, and also as the interim athletic director when TSA's previous AD left in September.
"God brought me back to TSA," said Brunson. "It's been good; it's been a trial by fire and I'm learning on the fly. When I took the AD job I knew my No. 1 priority, in my own eyes, was to make sure that our athletes were having a good time, because high school athletics should be a great experience. It should be something you look back on as one of your favorite parts of your high school years. (So far), I've enjoyed every minute of it. It's really a blessing to have the opportunity to be the AD."
The Lady Generals hope to replicate the success of last year's team that peaked at the perfect time after changing their team identity in early January.
"We had some issues right before the break trying to figure out ourselves offensively, and figuring our identity as a team," said Brunson. "The girls kinda scrapped their whole offensive philosophy. We knew we were athletic, well-rounded and versatile and that we had some decent team speed. So we decided that we're not going to worry about offense, and that we were going to put all of our cards into our defense, and we became an absolutely top notch defensive group. When they bought in defensively and realized their defensive potential, they kidna turned the corner. B.J. did an incredible job of figuring out her personnel, and what they were good at, and then crafting schemes offensively and defensively to match our group. The girls took off because of it."
Brunson has known Reed for a long time, and he knows full well how big the shoes are he is trying to fill.
"Outside of my immediate family, B.J. has had the biggest impact on me as a person of anyone I've ever come into contact with. She's been anything from a mentor, to my boss, to a second mom, to a best friend. I knew from the day I took the job that I was never going to be B.J. Reed. I told myself I'm OK with that. I'm not going to be the next B.J. Reed, I'm going to the first Tanner Brunson. Of course, I'd be crazy not to take the stuff I learned from B.J. over the years and incorporate it into my own coaching style, but I knew that I was never going to be a carbon copy of her, and I had to be perfectly OK with being me and finding out what I'm good at and using my basketball knowledge to craft my own coaching style."
This year's team is senior-laden on paper with five seniors, but only three of them had played before this season.
"Maci Willets has been a great leader for me ever since I took the job," said Brunson. "Maci, Kenzi Hyder and Karleigh Young were the three that I really leaned on from the start. Lizzie Sylvester and Lindsay Daniel make up my five returning players from last year's team, and they all understood just how close we were to winning the whole thing. Ever since the first day of practice, you can tell they've had that fire to get back there, and they've done a wonderful job of leading our new girls, saying 'This is how we do it around here, we need you to buy into it.' They've been absolutely great; all five of them have. They work hard every day and each of them understand how good we can be."
In order for the team to reach its potential, it will need those seniors to take it to another level when region play begins in January. Primarily, the Lady Generals will turn to Young, whose skills in the post make her one of the most fearsome interior threats in SCISA.
"I think Karleigh is remarkably talented," said Brunson. "Through her hard work, determination and some great coaching on B.J.'s part, she has become a really good basketball player. She's struggled so far this season with 'I'm the senior leader now, and I need to try to lead these girls,' but she's also trying to get the girls involved, so she's been kind of unselfish, and I appreciate her for it, but I need her to assert herself on a different level. I'm really excited to see how the rest of her season goes. If she puts her mind to it, she can be as good a force as there is in our region."
TSA knows it has the pieces to compete in the region, and for Brunson it's all about turning up the intensity and focus.
"I think this team has wonderful potential," said Brunson. "There's no doubt in mind that these girls are going to lock in, figure themselves out and have a fairly successful year. This team is very capable, at the very least, of competing in the region and making the state tournament. This was about the same opinion we had of last year's team, and that team peaked at the right time and made it all the way to the state championship game.
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