What a difference a year makes.
At this point last season the Denison Lady Yellow Jackets were trying to make a rise and feeling good about the fact that they had already won more games than the previous season. Things only got better by the end of district play.
The team finished third in the standings, qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and advanced to the second round.
Now it’s not just about a return to the postseason. The Lady Jackets have their sights set on higher goals, namely a district title and the first step in that direction comes as Denison (14-3) travels to Wichita Falls in the District 5-5A opener tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re not talking about just making the playoffs this year. We’re talking some uncharted territory during this six-year span,” Denison head coach Rod Been said. “It says a lot about how much these girls have bought in. These girls have paid a hefty price since seventh, eighth grade. They’ve paid their dues to be at this point.”
After taking on the Lady Coyotes, the Lady Jackets have the district bye on Tuesday and will host Gainesville before playing at Wichita Falls Rider in 5-5A play next Friday going into the Christmas break. Denison will compete in the Ardmore Holiday Tournament Dec. 28-30 before returning to 5-5A action at home against Denton on January 2.
Last season Denton Ryan won the 5-5A crown and Rider was the runner-up. Denison sat third with all four district losses against the top two. Improving and finding a way to crack the code has been the focus.
“I’m not bragging but I am confident that we are one of the best teams in the district,” Been said. “How are we going to handle a role we’ve never been before?”
The Lady Jackets were 9-6 going into district play a year ago and the tangible plus-five in the win column was somewhat expected since Denison returned its entire roster.
Two of the three losses came at the Polk Key Tournament in Abilene against Class 6A programs — 36-33 to El Paso Jefferson and 75-65 to Abilene — and the most recent was on Friday against Class 4A state-ranked Melissa, 59-55, in overtime.
“From being critical where this team can be and where this team is, I think we’ve lost some games to teams we should have beat,” Been said. “Our losses, we’d like to have them all back but you don’t get second chances on them. They were teaching moments.”
In the 14 victories, only one of them has been decided by single digits — this past Monday’s 61-52 victory against Royse City — and nine of them have been won by at least 20 points.
Leading the way once again is Zya Nugent, who is putting up better numbers from her all-state season as a sophomore. She is averaging 26.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 4.1 assists.
“She definitely takes what they’re going to give her,” Been said. “Her assist numbers continue to improve. People have known they’ve had to stop her for three years.”
The Lady Jackets have played almost the whole season without senior guard Olivia Marr, who was averaging 10.5 points, 3.3 assists and 2.5 steals when she broke a wrist in the fourth game of the season but is optimistic to return soon — perhaps as early as tonight. Senior Taylor Dawes and junior Zaycia Guthrie have taken over those minutes and helped keep things running smoothly.
“Those two have really stepped up,” Been said. “They’ve gotten minutes that they probably wouldn’t if Olivia hadn’t been hurt.”
Junior Ikia Lacy is averaging 9.4 points and 8.4 rebounds as the main post presence.
“I thought that’s where the most improvement would come,” Been said. “She’s gifted and athletic and improving her ability to finish around the basket.”
Junior Zachareia Sommers has produced more over last season with 7.7 points, four assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals and sophomore Taryn Gaines has increased her play from a good freshman campaign as well.
Even as things have been going well, there are always areas to improve for a group with big goals still in front of them.
“We’ve gotta solidify our second rotation and third rotation,” Been said. “That will be something during district, we’ll either shorten the bench or shore up the rotation.”