East Duplin’s girls basketball team has averaged nearly 20 wins a season during coach Mark Lane’s 12 years.
That streak will be broken this season as the Covid-19 pandemic has limited teams to a maximum of 14 regular-season games, which begin on Jan. 8.
The Panthers are rebuilding/reloading following the loss of longtime starters Marley Ingram and Aliza Benson. The duo were co-Ms. Basketball in 2020 on Duplin’s Elite All-County team.
But there’s plenty of talent for Lane, who could go to a more guard-orientated attack offensively as seven seniors, a junior, a pair of rising freshman and a super sophomore comprise his roster.
ED was 20-5 in 2019-20 after going 26-2 and 25-3 in the previous two seasons.
The best player in Duplin County and perhaps the East Central 2A Conference is Amiaya Hall, a sophomore who will play big in the Panthers’ drive to win the conference for the third consecutive season.
Expect more than her team-leading 12.1 points and 8.7 rebounds she posted a year ago.
“She can, and might, play anywhere, from point to center,” Lane said. “She’s great with the ball and her shot is a lot better than last year. We’re working on improving her passing.
“She’s a special talent who knows she’s not where she wants to be (in development). She’s a good leader and tremendous person. She’ll have opportunities (to play college basketball).”
Lane also expects more from letter-winners Imari Judge (6.9 ppg., 4.2 rebounds) and Carlie Radford (3.3 ppg.).
Judge was a starter, while Radford transferred in and had good spurts during numerous games.
“They can both knock down shots, but they have to get better defensively,” Lane said. “Both bring a lot to the table.”
So does point guard Taliah Mckenzie (2.6 ppg., 1.5 assists), who is a press-beater and a solid defender.
“She’ll play some off the ball, but what people don’t know is just how great a defender she was. Her defense disrupted plays.”
Junior Zoey Stanley also saw time last season and will have an expanded role.
“She can rebound and finish and shoot from 15 feet and on out,” Lane said. “I think she’ll play big for us this season.”
Seniors Taylor Dail, Taylor Thigpen, Summer Mercer and Jacquette McMillan all have roles for the Panthers.
Mercer brings athleticism, rebounding and leadership. Dail is an outstanding defender, while Thigpen can shoot the rock.
Freshman Sallie Hatcher and Rilee Kisler will see limited minutes early. ED, like many other schools in the area, will not field a junior varsity team this season.
What the Panthers lack in height will be made up elsewhere.
“We have more team length than in a long time,” Lane said. “We’re also really athletic.
“I think Taliah and Imari will provide some good leadership. We lost a lot but we have a bunch of new parts. Really good parts. But we have not been together that much. We missed the whole summer and have had just four practices.”
ED will try to use its athleticism to push the pace.
“We want to get up and down the floor, putting pressure on teams by shooting 3s and with our defense,” said Lane, who is 243-82 (.748) in Beulaville.
“By not having a summer, we’ve been unable to develop roles as I would have liked. So we’re not anywhere near where we’d like to be.
“But this is a good group, unselfish, as always, we just need practice time together.”
ED will play nonconference games against Richlands and Riverside-Martin and then deal with ECC clubs such as Clinton, who has its top three scorers back, Goldsboro, Midway and rising James Kenan.
“We hope to play ’em all and hopefully have a chance to finish first or second in the league to make the playoffs.” Lane said.
“Hopefully we can have more opportunities than just practice to build relationships together because we’ve always had a lot of team activities in the past.”
Michael Jaenicke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org