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Ball-handling, transition key for Lady Devil basketball team

The 2019-20 Unicoi County High School Lady Devil basketball program includes, pictured from left, back row, assistant coach Jeff King, assistant coach Lauren Trivette, Julie Hensley, Emma Griffith, Laurel Osborne, Ashtan Vance, Caroline Podvin, Jayla Stockfelt, Olivia Bailey, Hannah Shelton, Marissa Soulier, head coach Kerri King and assistant coach Eric Tilson; front row, Destiny Bridges, Abigail Rush, Riley Tapp, Leah Edney, Kaylia Street, Tenley Holt, Emily Rice, Jocelyn Metcalf and Amanda Miller. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

From Staff Reports

All too often, female athletes are the unsung heroines of the sporting world. As skilled and devoted as their male counterparts, they nonetheless must struggle against harmful stereotypes, shrinking budgets, and, often, lackluster support from the fans. It’s no wonder that many of them have spoken up in recent years, asking for their fair share of recognition.

Then there’s Unicoi County, where our girl basketball players are not only recognized but actively supported. The outpouring of community spirit they enjoy makes Unicoi County High School girls’ basketball coach Kerri King proud to call this area home. It also explains why she and her team members are looking forward to the coming season.

King is in her seventh year as head coach for the girls. Prior to that, she coached middle school ball, all while teaching in the classroom. All in all, she has devoted 30 years of her life to serving the future leaders of Unicoi County.

King leads a coaching team that includes Jeff King, Lauren Trivette and Eric Tilson. Together they have worked with single-minded dedication to prepare their players for the season.

“Three of my starters recently graduated,” said King in an interview with The Erwin Record. “Of my current roster, three have floor experience.”

This gives her and her staff a ready pool of raw talent with which to work. For athletic instructors, this means a rigorous focus on the basic skills that every basketball player must possess, such as dribbling, running, and shooting. It also means forging a group of talented individuals into a cohesive team.

“If I had to name one standout strength that my girls possess,” said King, “I would say it’s their ability to handle the ball.”

In the world of basketball, this refers to the ability to maintain control of the ball while moving it down court, all the while preventing the opposing team from stealing it away. It’s the strategy behind well-known techniques like side-to-side and backward dribbling, which can rise to the level of an art form when demonstrated by a gifted player.

Effective ball-handling is far from a solitary skill, however. It flows from a set of more basic skills and abilities, such as getting a feel for the ball. This is why King stresses the importance of hands-on training during her team’s daily drills. Holding a basketball must become second nature, if her players are to excel.

But single-player skills alone are not enough. Forging a successful season means building on the team’s inherent strengths. For King, transitioning is what her girls do best. This means the ability to shift from defensive to offensive play in an instant, keeping the pressure on the other side and enabling multiple points in rapid succession.

“Fans can expect to see a lot of transition play,” King said of her team’s style of play this season.

Transitioning is an aggressive style of play that demands a lot of the team. But it’s perfectly suited to players like the Lady Devils, who benefit from their superior ball-handling ability.

Basketball is a sport that favors tall players, which is why former greats like Yao Ming and Shawn Bradley earned such accolades during their careers. But height and agility aren’t everything. King is training her girls to play “small ball,” an approach that uses speed, agility, and precision teamwork to make up for a lack of stature.

Every method of play has its weaknesses. For small ball, the drawback stems from the fact that defensive players are widely spread out. King is aware of this fact, which is why she’s drilling her girls in post defense. Again, this is an approach that uses her player’s smaller stature to the team’s benefit. Good post defenders are able to get low to the ground, blocking attacking players near their core, where they’re less able to maneuver away and reach the all-important three-point line.

A player’s mental outlook also plays a decisive role in a game’s outcome. For King, this points out another strength that her girls possess.

“We have no inflated egos on my team,” she said matter-of-factly. “We do have certain players who excel in given roles, such as Ashtan Vance, who plays outside, and Caroline Podvin, who is an outstanding inside player yet versatile as well. But, at the end of the day, we compete as a team, not as isolated individuals.”

The Lady Devils had a strong record last season, ending up 22-8 and making it into the post-season before being put out by South Greene in the region tournament.

The 2019-20 Lady Devil squad includes senior players Kaylia Street, Jayla Stockfelt and Vance. Juniors on the squad are Leah Edney, Emma Griffith, Tenley Holt and Podvin. Sophomores are Anniston Hensley, Abigail Rush, Hannah Shelton and Marissa Soulier. Freshmen players are Olivia Bailey, Jocelyn Metcalf, Laurel Osborne, Emily Rice and Riley Tapp.

UCHS will again compete in the Three Rivers Conference with Elizabethton, Happy Valley, Johnson County, Sullivan Central, Sullivan East and Sullivan South.

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The Lady Devils opened the 2019-20 season with two wins on Thursday, Nov. 21.

First, the team went on the road and defeated the Volunteer Falcons, 65-38. Holt had a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds) as well as 5 steals and 2 assists to lead the way. Podvin scored 16, Shelton scored 8, Vance had 7, Street and Rush each scored 5, Metcalf had 3 and Edney and Stockfelt scored 2 each.

Later on Thursday, the Lady Devils defeated University High, 56-24, in their first home game of the season. Podvin had a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds. She also had 4 steals. Holt scored 12. Metcalf and Vance each had 8. Rush scored 3. Edney and Osborne (6 rebounds) each scored 3. Street and Shelton each scored 2.

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The Lady Devils played their first game in the Thanksgiving tournament being played at Sullivan East on Monday, Nov. 25, against Unaka after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for this issue. The Lady Devils will continue the tournament on Wednesday, Nov. 27, against  Greeneville at 3 p.m. They will paly Hampton on Friday, Nov. 29, at noon and Stateline on Saturday, Nov. 30, at 10:30 a.m.

The team is also scheduled to travel to Cloudland on Tuesday, Dec. 3, and to North Buncombe High School (North Carolina) on Wednesday, Dec. 4. On these days, the junior varsity team will play at 4 p.m. with the varsity playing at 6:30 p.m.