The Bulloch Academy varsity girls’ basketball team kicks off its 2011-12 season today as the Lady Gators welcome seven teams to their gym over a three-day span for the sixth annual Lady Gator Classic.
Bulloch takes on Hilton Head Christian Academy at 5:30 p.m. in the tournament’s second game. Sandersville’s Brentwood School takes on Bible Baptist of Savannah in the tournament’s opening game at 4 p.m.
The round-robin tournament continues Wednesday and Thursday with three games each day. Other teams involved in the Classic are Frederica Academy from St. Simons Island, David Emanuel Academy from Stillmore, Robert Toombs Christian Academy from Lyons and Trinity Christian School from Dublin. Admission is $6.
Bulloch had a tough season in its first year of Class AAA competition, going 3-7 in Region 4-AAA. But Paul Webb’s bunch did make it to the first round of the state tournament and posted its fifth consecutive double-digit winning season, going 19-10.
Only one starter, point guard Rachel Gilbert, graduated from the last year’s squad, leaving Webb very optimistic about the season.
"If the past five seasons are any indication, this year will prove to be another exciting one for our Lady Gators," he said. "One of our biggest keys to how successful we will be this year is how well our seniors lead and how well our underclassmen follow their lead."
Seniors Taylor Collins, Haley Burke and Amelia Akins are the physical, mental and emotional leaders on the floor, on the bench, in the locker room, in practice and at school.
Collins, Burke and junior Anna Newton were the major cogs in the Lady Gator machine last season and will likely reprise their roles for the ’11-12 season.
"We’ve been working hard in weight room during the offseason," said the 5-10 Newton. "We’ve got great expectations for this upcoming season."
Newton, a forward, led the team in scoring (13.3 points per game) and rebounding (9.3 rebounds per game). Collins was ferociously aggressive at center and had 11.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg. The pair was a feared duo whenever the Lady Gators took the court.
"All of us mesh well as a team," said the 5-9 Collins. "We’re a really competitive group and know how to push each other and get the best out of each other without getting each other upset. We’re really looking forward to this year."
Burke was an aggressive shooting guard and netted 11.2 ppg and 4.4 rpg. She also had the highest three-point percentage (24 of 63) and the highest free-throw percentage (108 of 155) for an incredible 70 percent from the charity stripe.
Traditionally, Webb hustles his players in and out a good bit so most of his girls have seen a lot of action.
"There is going to be some really intense competition for playing time," said Webb. "I feel like our girls will rise to the challenge."
Junior Lauren Dennard will fill Gilbert’s shoes at point guard with talented freshman Ashley Burke also seeing playing time. Juniors Mary Margaret Reeves and Marianna Peebles (currently injured) will alternate at guards.
Sophomores Ashlee Lanier, Danielle Atkinson, Lindsey Brannen, Madison Poole, Mary Kate Thomas and Brooke Gilbert move into important back-up roles and should see considerable action. The talented freshmen class of Burke, Page Spence, Tatum Blitch, Cate Williams and Pate Lomax round out Webb’s squad.
"Last year was our first year in Triple A," said Collins. "We hung right in there with everybody. Now we know what to expect and how to prepare."
The Lady Gators don’t begin region play until January 3, but they have a full slate of non-region contests in late November and throughout the month of December to prepare for a shot at the region title and a possible state title run.