Several Cherokee County girls basketball teams began the new season in the top 10 of the state rankings and for a few, deep runs into the state playoffs will be stated goals.
Four teams advanced to the playoffs last season, and Cherokee had the longest run. The Lady Warriors finished the season 28-3 and, for the second straight season, finished one game away from playing for a state title.
Center Kate Johnson returns as one of the top players in the county. A Furman commit, she averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game last season.
Stepping into full-time starting roles this season will be Lilly Griffith, Presli Clark and Haylee Donley. All three saw significant minutes last season and should be well prepared to help Cherokee make a run at a fifth straight region title.
The Lady Warriors (6-0) won the North Forsyth Thanksgiving Tournament, with Johnson and Griffith both earning all-tournament honors. Cherokee is ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAAAA and defeated Sequoyah 63-58 on Tuesday.
“We will look different as a team from the previous year and look forward to the challenge of this season,” Cherokee coach Matt Cates said.
The Lady Warriors may face a challenge within the region this year.
Woodstock (4-0) is ranked No. 3 and has a pair of guards who should be among the best in the county. Bridget Utberg returns after leading the county in scoring at 19.8 points per game. She scored a career-high 38 points in Tuesday night’s win over South Forsyth and could challenge the program’s career scoring record later this season.
Alongside Utberg will be Karson Martin, who is averaging 17 points per game so far this season. Savannah Casey and Sarah Grace Bertolini saw significant minutes last season and should step into larger roles this season.
Woodstock finished 23-5 last season with a first-round playoff exit to Campbell.
“It was a tough preseason, but we’re grateful to play the games we can,” Woodstock coach Regina Tate-Leslie said. “We are focusing on being great teammates and doing whatever it takes to play our style of basketball. We are establishing a culture.”
Sequoyah (1-1) entered this week as the No. 7 team in Class AAAAAA. The Lady Chiefs, led by coach Chris Yarbrough, return four starters to a team that finished last season 19-11 and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.
Leading the way for Sequoyah will likely be Elle Blatchford, who led the team in scoring at 11 points per game while adding four rebounds. A’ryan Jackson, Susanna Rogers and Deja Rakestraw also return as starters, while Sayler Davies could see significant minutes.
“I’m excited for this group,” Yarbrough said. “Even with that, this year has been tough on everyone, and there are so many unknowns. We have tried to tell everyone that they have to be ready, and being able to adapt to missing personnel is so vital. It’s conceivable that a team may not have their entire roster all year, so developing depth this year is more important than ever.”
River Ridge (2-0) may make the biggest jump in the standings. The Lady Knights defeated Blessed Trinity 55-22 on Tuesday and will be led again by Jason Taylor, who enters his 12th year as coach.
Point guard Leigh Codiniera should anchor the lineup, while guard Mataya Gayle returns after leading the team with 15.5 points per game. Gayle finished with 19 points, 10 assists in the Lady Knights’ season-opening win against Alpharetta.
Alongside the returning backcourt, Emily Paulson, Caroline Cavallaro, Sofia Reyes, Chloe Bedora and Simone Goins all started games a season ago. Allie Sweet and Caroline Moon could also compete for significant minutes. They finished last season 14-13 and will likely have aspirations of a state playoff berth this season.
“We have very talented and athletic guards that can score, as well as talented post players that can get the job done around the rim,” Taylor said. “This is about as complete of a team as we’ve had in years. They are a fun group to be around, and I look forward to coaching them this year.”
Etowah (2-0) defeated North Cobb 42-39 on Tuesday and also returns multiple starters. Forward Ally Zazzara, who finished with 19 points Tuesday, earned first-team all-region honors last season, while Kinsey Norton returns as the team’s leading shot-blocker and rebounder.
Guard Jada Peterson was the team’s second-leading scorer last year and should continue to develop into a backcourt threat. Kiersten James and Tristin Moore also return as starters under coach Rob Graner.
Emma Bussey, Lily Cohran, Megan Reed and Becca Archer will also likely see significant playing time for Etowah, which finished last season 12-17.
Creekview (1-4) will be led by first-year coach John Domville, who spent the previous five seasons at Centennial. The Lady Grizzlies will need to replace all five starters from a team that finished 13-14 a season ago.
Forward Mackenzi Salas leads the team with 11 points and eight rebounds per game so far this season, while Darsey Waters is averaging eight points. Taylor Collins also returns with varsity experience.
Domville will look to fill the void left by Roger Nolan, who retired last spring after serving as the only coach in the program’s history.
“We’re excited about all 20 of these girls and look forward to building throughout the season in order to be playing our best basketball come February and region tournament time,” Domville said.
“This community is incredible and so supportive of these girls and the program so we appreciate that very much. Coach Nolan’s record and impact here speaks for itself, so we hope to add to that tradition while also progressing ourselves forward in terms of our play style.”