Elizabethtown will have a new look this year.
Yes, the Lady Panthers lost four players to graduation, including two starters, but one junior steps into the starting lineup and she changes things.
“I’m glad I don’t have to figure out a way to guard her anymore,” Lady Panthers girls’ basketball coach Donnie Swiney said.
That would be Kayra Freeman.
Swiney remembers two years ago when Elizabethtown played John Hardin in a 17th District game in late January. Freeman was the starting point guard for the Lady Bulldogs.
“We had to get out of our press because of her,” he said.
John Hardin led 14-11 after the first quarter and the Lady Panthers outscored them, 42-13 the rest of the game.
“She’s hard to guard,” Swiney said. “She gets her head up. She can see things. She understands the game and knows where people are gonna be and when they’re supposed to be there.
“Maybe more than the talent she has on the floor, her understanding of the game and knowing where people are going to be will help us immensely. She’s very coachable and she loves the game.”
Freeman played three games for John Hardin last year before transferring to the Lady Panthers.
She was ruled ineligible but practiced with her new teammates and played in JV games.
“Sitting out was hard, but I knew over time that everything would pay off,” Freeman said. “I was trying to work on stuff (during JV games) that I usually didn’t do — shooting more and doing pull-ups, stuff I needed to work on.
“It was great practice.”
Freeman did not have to score a lot while at John Hardin. She ran the floor, ran the offense, was a menace on defense and did it all very well.
“There is a lot of speed and a lot of talent on this team. It makes the game a lot more fun,” she said.
Freeman will share point guard duties with senior Ellie Taylor.
“It takes some pressure off my shoulders,” Freeman said. “It’s what I’ve always done, so of course it comes easy to me, but anybody can bring the ball up the court, anybody on the team can basically handle themselves.”
Playing the two-guard gives Freeman a different look at the floor.
“A lot of times if I’m on the wing, there’s a lot of drives and pull-ups,” she said. “I feel like it gives me more angles.”
The Lady Panthers played Marshall County on Wednesday inside the Charlie Rawlings Memorial Gymnasium during the Duke’s Summer Shootout and are learning how to play alongside each other. Freshman Xavi Smalley is the other new addition to the starting lineup, which also includes seniors Whitney Hay and Sydney Clark.
“Coming together more, learning how to play as a team,” Freeman said of the main summer objectives. “We’re guard-heavy, so everyone’s gonna have to learn to play together.”
“I want them to learn how to play together,” he said. “I want them to learn how to play the game, make decisions — what decisions are we going to be able to make going full speed? Are they going to go two dribbles too far? Are the going to over-penetrate too much? Or are they going to be able to recognize the defense and be able to find the open man at the right time?
“I just want us to run, play, enjoy the game, have some fun together and build that chemistry with this group.”
Among those coming off the bench will be forwards Bailey Thomas and Rickeia Cormier and guards Olivia Yurcisin, Kiarah Dornan and Presley Payne.
Swiney said the Lady Panthers will have multiple options when putting a lineup on the hardwood.
“We can go big or go small,” he said. “We’ll get smaller when Kiarah or Presley comes in for Xavi, but we’ll also get faster.”
Freeman played in 22 games for John Hardin as a sixth-grader and 116 games overall.
“It was hard at first because I grew up in that area,” she said. “Switching over was hard, but everyone has been so welcoming. Everybody made it easier and basically it got easier and easier.”
Freeman said she learned a fair amount while watching the Lady Panthers finish 30-5 with a loss in the 5th Region Tournament championship game.
“I probably don’t pay attention to what other teams do as much as I need to,” she said. “I learned what looks to give them. My mom said that even since I was playing JV, I was also practicing with them and I felt like that helped me transition easier, instead of running out there and playing games with them automatically.
“I kind of eased my way in.”