Tony Mabrey knew exactly what he was inheriting when he took the Brindlee Mountain girls basketball job in 2016.
He was inheriting what was left from coach Kelly Robinson’s magical Final Four team in 2015-16.
And it wasn’t much. In fact, it was practically nothing.
That 2015-16 Lady Lions squad was filled with a lot of talented seniors, many of whom had played together since the seventh grade and are among the best athletes the school has ever produced. Almost every player moved on after that run, and the only one who didn’t was out at the beginning of the season with a significant injury.
Mabrey welcomed seven girls to his first varsity practice. There weren’t enough players to have a junior varsity team.
“We played a few (middle school) school girls up out of necessity,” Mabrey said. “We knew we were going to take our lumps.”
But Mabrey judged his situation and made a decision. He was going to play his young, inexperienced players, in a limited fashion, in a system that would remain the same during his tenure, even though he knew the girls on that team couldn’t compete that way.
As he said, they took some lumps – a lot of lumps.
This year, Mabrey’s patience is starting to pay off. He has 11 varsity players, all of whom can play, he said, and the JV squad also has 11 players.
“I finally have three players who can drive,” Mabrey joked about seniors Lilly Graham and Jasmine and Savanna Avelar.
The varsity and JV teams, as well as the boys teams, opened Friday night at Randolph. Several of the players – including the Avelars – had to get up early this morning to compete in the 3A state cross country meet at Oakville Indian Mounds Park at Oakville.
That will be the final conflict of sports the teams will face.
Mabrey’s current team, and the JV team coached by Evan Lemons, will be capable of playing the style of basketball he envisioned from the start.
“We want to run. We want to pressure some on defense,” he said. “We wanted to run and play pressure defense, up-tempo basketball (in the previous two seasons) but we were limited by age, strength and numbers.
“Now we have 11 and they can all play, so we’ll be able to do some of the things we’ve wanted to do.”
Mabrey said he’s still playing several girls from his first season and he notes that some have played varsity ball for two or three seasons.
“We’ve got a little system going now,” he said.
Lemons has been an asset along the way. He was able to identify for Mabrey the strengths and weaknesses of the program since day one.
One was the core players on the seventh grade team Lemons coached three years ago. Those girls are now sophomores and are the core of the varsity team now.
Several starters will come from the group that includes Kailyn Childress (guard), Chantzley Kirkland (forward), Adri Knepper (post) and Kyleigh Wilks (forward).
The four junior players are veterans of the program and also will contribute heavily: Zoie Decker (point guard), Grace Pearl (guard), Cassidy Tompkins (guard/small forward) and Grace Taymon (guard).
Many of the athletes in those two groups have been major players in multiple sports for multiple seasons.
Lemons said the seventh grade team he coached three years ago routinely defeated the varsity squad in practice.
“They’re that good,” he said.
Point guard Decker, for instance, has played varsity ball for three years and is fully ingrained into the system.
“She’s gotten better physically and she’s mentally tougher shooting the ball,” Mabrey said. “She’s been in the system three years and she knows what we’re trying to do.”
Another player Mabrey expects big things from is Knepper. Always an excellent 3-point shooter, Knepper likely will have an expanded role in the offense.
“She’s 5-foot-10 and has an excellent build,” Mabrey said. “So, she’s got size and strength. We’re doing a lot of high-low stuff and I think she’s figured out she can score down there.”
Because of an athletic department-wide offseason strength and conditioning program started by Lemons this year, all the girls are a little stronger and more athletic than they were last year, Mabrey said.
“Overall, our rebounding has gotten better because our strength has improved,” he said. “Better rebounding enables us to run the ball.”