As the temperatures slowly begin to drop athletes will head indoors and one Cherokee County team in particular has expectations of a deep postseason run.
Cherokee High School’s girls basketball team finished last season 27-4 while winning its third consecutive region championship and advancing to the Final Four in Class AAAAAAA. With a talented returning core of players the expectations are well understood within the program.
“We have a culture that we live by and our expectations don’t change,” Cherokee coach Matt Cates said. “Culture isn’t something that we put on the front of a t-shirt. It’s something we focus on with every team, every day. The teams change every year, but the expectations don’t.”
Cates, the longest tenured basketball coach in Cherokee County, returns for his 20th season at Cherokee. The Lady Warriors’ defensive pressure has been the staple for Cates’ coached teams and this season will likely be no different. The Lady Warriors are 3-0 through the first week of the season and are holding opponents to 36 points per game. Even with historical and early season success, the message from both the coach and players has been one of renewed focus for a new season.
“Last year is last year. I think we just have to come in every day and work to get better,” senior point guard Ashlyn Andrus said. “If we do that and work hard we’ll reach the goal that we want to achieve.”
Cherokee boasts an athletic roster with four players already committed to play college basketball. Andrus (Limestone College), Chatham Brown (Shorter University), Courtney Cates (Piedmont College) and Sydney Watts (Navy) have all committed to extend their basketball careers beyond high school while junior center Kate Johnson will likely soon follow.
Watts, a 6-foot-1-inch skilled forward, leads the team in scoring so far this season at 16.3 points per game and should help lead the team along with Johnson who stands 6-foot-3-inches tall. Andrus, along with Brown and Courtney Cates, should help provide stability and shooting from the guard positions. Haylee Donely and Karoline Karl should also provide important minutes this season, with Donely currently the first off the bench and Karl providing additional shooting.
“Nothing changes,” Johnson said. “It’s the same thing as last year. If we work hard, get in the gym whenever we can, then we’ll succeed this year.”
Cherokee opened the season with an impressive 69-32 victory over Class AAAAAA defending state champion Lanier, and followed that up with a 79-48 win over River Ridge and a 62-28 win over North Paulding. During the game against River Ridge, Cherokee caused multiple turnovers which led to fast break opportunities. The Lady Warriors also knocked down eight 3-pointers, and are averaging 7.6 made 3-pointers so far this season, but it was the defense which Matt Cates was focused on after the game.
“It’s always good to win, but we’re not where we need to be defensively,” Cates said. “This time of year is when you work on things, and for us we need to work on defense if we’re going to get where we want to go.”
While Cates serves as the dean of basketball coaches in the county several other schools will be playing with relatively new coaches.
Woodstock’s Regina Tate-Leslie is entering her second season with the Lady Wolverines and will again have one of the state’s best players at her disposal. Sophomore guard Bridget Utberg returns this season after averaging 17.5 points per game and 3.5 steals per game as a freshman.
Woodstock finished fourth in the Region 4AAAAAAA tournament last year and will have to replace seven players lost to graduation, but joining Utberg will be senior Sophia Singer who is committed to Wester Carolina and average 9.2 points per game last season. Junior Savannah Casey and freshman Karson Martin have started out this season well, with Casey averaging 6.5 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Martin is the team’s second-leading scorer behind Utberg at 12 points per game.
Woodstock is 2-0 so far this season and Tate-Leslie said there’s a noticeable difference in year No. 2.
“I think every coach who comes into a program, that first year is always tough because you’re trying to create a culture and potentially change a culture,” Tate-Leslie said. “The biggest difference this year is I have a core group of girls who at least know what my expectations are which makes it a lot easier.”
Etowah has also started off 2-0 and will be coached by Rob Graner who is entering his second season leading the Lady Eagles. Etowah finished third in the Region 4AAAAAAA tournament last year and has been one of the most consistent programs in school history.
“We have three state runner ups and one championship in the history of this program,”Graner said. “I’m trying to get this program back to where it was when I was an assistant in the mid-2000s.”
Junior Ally Zazzara should again lead the team this season after leading the region in scoring last season averaging 17.7 points per game while adding 6.5 rebounds per game. Zazzara scored 29 points and hit nine 3-pointers in win over River Ridge Nov. 14.
Creekview will once again have Roger Nolan on the sidelines as head coach and is coming of an Elite Eight appearance in the state playoffs and a Region 6AAAAAA runner-up finish. Creekview was balanced in its offensive production last season and Nolan, the only coach in program history, said the team will likely be similar in its approach this year. Senior Emily Wilkie averaged 8.3 points and six rebounds per game a year ago and is the team’s leading returner in both categories. Creekview will began its season at 6 p.m. on Nov. 22 at Allatoona.
River Ridge is coming off only its second losing season in school history and Jason Taylor, the only coach in program history, will return for his 11th season. The Lady Knights dealt with playing through youth last season and Taylor said he expects the bumps and bruises from last season to pay dividends this year.
“We learned a lot last year,” Taylor said. “We bring back all those kids and we’re looking to rebound off last year’s season. Realistically I think we’re one of the top four teams in our region. We have some really talented freshman coming in to join the already talented group we have, so I’m really excited for this year.”
One of those talented freshman is Mataya Gayle, who leads the team in scoring so far this season at 15 points per game. Leigh Codinera leads the team with 4.7 assists per game. River Ridge (0-3) has scheduled tough to open the season, with Cherokee, Etowah and Woodstock, and began its Region 6AAAAAA schedule Nov. 19 at home against Allatoona.
Sequoyah will begin its schedule on Nov. 19 as well, when the Lady Chiefs travel to Woodstock. Sequoyah will be led by first-year coach Chris Yarborough who will take over a program which finished third in the region and advanced to the Sweet 16 in Class AAAAAA last year.
“The program I came from, we had four different players who averaged double figures,” Yarborough said. “We want everyone to be a threat, that way it’s hard to scout. We want our team our team to be player led and the seniors have done a great job of passing along to underclassmen what we’re preaching.”
Sequoyah will need to replace Sydney Rosant, the 2018-19 Cherokee Tribune Girls Basketball Player of the Year, who graduated and now plays in the Ivy League for Brown University.
Senior guards Tatum Dondanville and Macy Williams should provide production and leadership for Sequoyah but freshman Elle Blatchford may surprise a few teams before the season ends.