By Garrett Mitchell
The Woodruff Lady Wolverines basketball team has been in the midst of a successful run for over half a decade, riding a wave of talent that has seen the program achieve success not seen since the late 1980s.
After five consecutive seasons of 15 wins or more, and with the 2019-20 season getting underway, Woodruff now eyes even loftier goals of region and state championships with four starters returning from last year’s squad that finished 19-5.
The Lady Wolverines are spearheaded by a fearsome big four in their starting lineup, seniors Zavia Jeter and Kaliyah Gilliam, along with junior forwards Maddie Grace Runyans and Brooke Bailey. Rounding out the starting five is junior forward Lillie Rhodes, who serves as a defensive motor and opportunistic scorer amidst the Lady Wolverines star-studded lineup.
Jeter, who was named the preseason Region III-3A player of the year as well as one of the top five seniors in the 3A classification, knows this team has what it takes to be successful.
“I have always said our starting five is very deep and we have great chemistry,” Jeter said. “We’ve been playing together since middle school when we were yay high. It’s all just there and we know each other very well.”
Jeter certainly provides the most recognizable presence on the team, and is quickly closing in on 1,000 career points, but her counterparts are also equally as valuable.
Gilliam, also approaching 1,000 career points, is a solid ball hander, slasher, and is adept at finishing at the basket. Runyans is the Swiss Army Knife of the team, scoring inside and out, as well as one of the best passers on the floor. Bailey, meanwhile, is the muscle in the middle as the 6-foot-1-inch post is a terror on the boards, around the rim, and also has the ability to knock down outside shots.
“We all have a different skill set which when they are all put together as one makes the team better,” Bailey said. “We’re all different in our ways, but ultimately that makes us better than we would be individually.”
Head coach Jon Jansen, in his second year at the helm for the Lady Wolverines, acknowledges the chemistry his team possesses is a primary catalyst for their success on the court.
“This is a very coachable and hardworking group,” Jansen said. “We have a lot of leadership in the senior and junior classes and my expectations are very high for this group. When you have team chemistry like we have, it breeds a sense of accountability that doesn’t have to be stated. People understand what is expected of them on the court, off the court, and that is a by-product of having good team chemistry because they all hold themselves to such a high level.”
Indeed, the expectations for Woodruff are high entering the season. The Lady Wolverines were picked as the favorite to win the region championship along with the individual accolades bestowed upon them. Following last year’s second round playoff exit to eventual state champion Keenan, a game that Woodruff trailed by only four points at the half, Bailey says the team is ready to take the next step.
“The expectations for this team should be set high, higher than most people think,” she said. “We can go all the way. We certainly have the capability and the skill set to do that.”
Jeter added, “When one of us is down we have four more to bring her back up. It’s always been like that. The chemistry is there and we love each other that much.”
Added Jansen, “I believe we should be able to make a good push throughout the season, achieve some team goals, and maybe achieve some things we didn’t achieve last year.” he said. “We left some things unfinished last year and we’re definitely going to work hard to get to the finish line on those goals this year.”