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Lady Tigers taking it one step at a time

If the Demopolis Lady Tigers want a role model for how to deal with the disappointment of coming back from both the 2004 and 2005 state Final Fours without a title, they don’t have to look very far.

DHS’s football team fell in the 4A semifinals in ’02 and ’03 before breaking through in ’04. The Tiger baseball lost the 4A state finals in three games in ’04 only to return and claim the title in ’05. But head coach Tony Pittman says it’s far too early to worry about whether the Lady Tigers will follow in their classmates’ footsteps.

“With a little time, and a little work, we can be as good as we were last year,” he says. “Our goal is to be successful in practice and let that carry over into being successful during games. Ultimately our goal is just to get better every day in practice, better individually and as a team.”

According to Pittman, how well they meet that goal-and many wins that improvement translates into-depends primarily on two factors.

“The key will be the play at point guard and the leadership of our seniors,” he says.

It would be a great surprise to Pittman if the second key became an issue. The Tigers are led by three returning senior starters: center Kelly Johnson, power forward Katerria Johnson, and shooting guard Shawnese Armstead, who Pittman admits the team may need to “rely heavily on.” They are joined by a fourth senior, forward Crystal Walker, who last season added depth off the bench.

“They’ve been through the wars They know what it takes to be successful, what the teams needs to do to be successful,” Pittman says of his seniors. “If I wasn’t here, our team should still be able to have practice without me. I expect the rest of the team to follow their leadership on and off the court … They started when our program was mediocre and now it’s time to push it up to the next level.”

Pittman says, however, that not even the seniors’ starting positions are safe and secure with the team’s first game of the season, at home against Francis Marion, looming this Tuesday.

“Right now we don’t know the starting five. I tell them a starter is a player who stands out from the rest of the team at one position. We’re looking for the best five we can put out there,” he says. “Nothing’s set in stone.”

If the three senior starters do indeed return to their positions, a big hole will still remain at small forward following the departure of ’05 senior Daphne Reid. An even bigger hole, however, waits to be filled at point guard, where the Tigers must replace 2004-05 4A Player of the Year finalist Gabrielle Essex.

The current leading candidate is sophomore Jasmine Simmons, who received valuable playing time as a freshman and tied with Katerria Johnson for the team’s high-scoring honors in last season’s Final Four loss to Deshler.

“She has a lot of ability and makes good decisions,” Pittman says of his potential new starter. “She does need to slow down and run the offense, the way Gabrielle did. That’ll come with time.”

Pushing Simmons is talented freshman Shay Smith, who has “a lot of natural ability” according to Pittman, and consistently “looks to get her teammates involved.”

Even ironing out the point guard position, however, won’t mean that the Lady Tigers won’t still have plenty to work on, Pittman says.

“We’re really working hard on our rebounding. The last two years we’ve done too much standing, not jumping, and getting out of position,” he says. “We’re going to try and dominate the board this season.

“We’ve also put a heavy emphasis on cutting down on our turnovers,” Pittman says. The Tigers turned the ball over 27 times in the Deshler loss. “If you’re turning the ball over 13 to 15 times a game, you’re not going to win a championship. If you want to beat good teams, you can’t turn the ball over.”

If there’s any bright spot to Essex’s departure, it’s that the Lady Tigers’ attack will be more diverse, more unpredictable-and, possibly, more explosive.

“We should be able to attack from all areas of the court,” Pittman says. “Last season we had a tendency sometimes to stand around and see what Gabrielle would do. This year, the attack can come from all over, so that’ll be a strength.”

But like any high school basketball coach anywhere, Pittman says that the Tigers’ road to a return engagement in Birmingham starts on the defensive end.

“We have to play great defense,” he says. “We want to allow our opponents 30 or 31 points a game. If we do that, we have a good chance of winning the game, even if we might not be shooting the ball well. You can always play great defense.”