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Starting over: New head coach Zack McCartha's team young and inexperienced
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Starting over: New head coach Zack McCartha's team young and inexperienced

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Starting over: New head coach Zack McCartha's team young and inexperienced

The 2021-22 McDowell Lady Titans varsity basketball team is, front row, left to right, Kennedy Dobson, Kensly Stewart, Faith Laws, Abby Wyatt, Aubrey Harris; second row, Alexis Rhymer, Kaylin Darveaux, Addyson Davis, Sage Young, Tayla Carson, Emily Alfaro (manager); third row, assistant coach Cheyenne Matson, head coach Zack McCartha, Abby McMahan, Peyton McPeters, Emma England, Brooklyn Thompson and assistant coach Whitney Lenon.

During a recent basketball practice, McDowell Lady Titans head coach Zack McCartha stopped drills and had a talk with his players after being unsatisfied with the effort being made on the court.

The talk was lengthy, but to the point. And that point was that with a lack of experience, you have to make it up by having energy and passion.

The Lady Titans in 2021-22 will be fielding arguably one of the most inexperienced groups in the school’s 50-year history. There will be some growing pains along the way, but it’s those other parts of the equation that the new head coach hopes to fortify this winter.

McCartha, a McDowell alumni and assistant under former head coach Jennifer Kinninger, left his alma mater in the summer of 2016 for his inaugural head coaching experience at neighboring Mitchell High School. He spent five seasons in Ledger, going 88-38 and rebuilding a Lady Mountaineers basketball program that had fallen on some hard times, turning it into a contender in the 1A classification.

The success in those five years included two Western Highlands Conference tournament championships, one regular-season conference championship during the COVID-shortened 2020-21, campaign and a pair of 1A West Regional final appearances.

With that under his belt, McCartha returned to McDowell when he was hired in late June, replacing Kinninger. And before the ink dried on the paperwork, his team hit the floor running, participating in routine summer workouts and open gyms in the fall, an early sign of the commitment shown by everyone.

The ultimate goal is reviving a girls’ hoops program that also has seen a recent run of struggles. The Lady Titans have finished at or below the .500 mark in three of the past five seasons, including last year’s 3-6 mark in the abbreviated campaign. Last season’s record also ended a long-running streak of state playoff appearances that go back decades.

The 2021-22 roster will be about as young and inexperienced as you could get in terms of production from the previous year. While six varsity players return, they carry only 14% of the offensive production from a season ago.

The bulk of that belongs to junior wing Peyton McPeters, who averaged 4.6 points a game in seven contests played. Another junior wing, Faith Laws, scored 2 ppg., and sophomore guard Tayla Carson averaged 1.7 points in six games.

“We understand that we are an inexperienced team and we know the only way to get experience is to get out there and play and learn,” said McCartha. “Success never comes in a straight line. It’s never an easy path to the top and it won’t be simple. There will be some bumps in the road but for us our goal is to get better one day, one practice and one game at a time. We’re going to compete and work like crazy out there.”

The hard work so far has been tangible in the improvement in both returning juniors.

“Faith and Peyton are the two that have some experience from a year ago and they have worked to become better basketball players,” said McCartha. “They have picked up on the things we want to do as a basketball team. I’m going to rely heavily on them this season.”

The rest of the 14-player roster will have plenty of opportunities to establish roles throughout the season as well. One player who has stood out is freshman Kensly Stewart. She will be asked to operate at the point guard position. Stewart, at her young age, is athletic and is improving daily with ballhandling and shooting skills.

The other two starting spots and reserves will likely evolve as the season begins. There has been a competitive battle for those spots in the early going.

“These girls are working hard getting their spots,” said McCartha. “I do feel like we have some versatility on the floor and who plays may change on a game-to-game basis.”

Along with Stewart, the roster will feature a second freshman guard, Sage Young, as well as three sophomores in Carson, wing Abby Wyatt and forward Brooklyn Thompson.

“Our younger girls are tough, and that’s a good thing going for us right now,” said McCartha. “I don’t think they will back away from the challenge. Coming in as a freshman or sophomore and being expected to play significant minutes is not easy, but I don’t think any of them will back down from it.”

The rest of the varsity roster will include juniors Abby McMahan, Addyson Davis, Alexis Rhymer, Kennedy Dobson, Kaylin Darveaux and Emma England; and one senior, Aubrey Harris. Both McMahan and Harris were on the varsity roster last season but didn’t account for any of the offense. The rest of the upperclassmen were junior varsity players last season.

One of the more notable changes you will see with the girls comes in the style of play offensively. McDowell, which for many years has utilized a high-low post offense, will have a different look this season. Some of that is a change in philosophy, but a lot of that is also due to roster construction.

“We have some post players out there but we don’t really have big kids, so we will utilize those players differently,” said McCartha. “From the offensive side, you have to adapt to your personnel. I do believe a lot in being aggressive and driving to the basket either making shots or getting to the foul line. I also believe in players shooting 3-pointers if they are open and in their range. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the first pass or tenth pass, if you are open for a good shot and within range, I want them being aggressive.”

The measure of success this season will all come back to that energy and passion over the next months. The Lady Titans’ season will open at R-S Central on Tuesday (6 p.m. start). The first home game will be a week later, Nov. 30, against the same Lady Hiltoppers squad.

Coach McCartha will have a couple of familiar faces helping out as assistants this season. Former Lady Titans standout Shawna Lytle, a member of the 1991 4A state championship team will serve as a varsity assistant coach. Lytle has spent the past two decades coaching middle school basketball, with her most recent tenure being at East McDowell Middle.

In addition, 2016 McDowell alum and former Erskine College player Cheyenne Matson will also be a varsity assistant for the second year and will be the junior varsity head coach this season.

Also joining the program is varsity assistant Whitney Lenon, the sister-in-law of former McDowell player Kylee Lenon Soper. Lenon has a background in basketball as she was a standout player in her home state of Washington several years ago.

Lady Titans head coach Zack McCartha talks about the players:

10—Addyson Davis, Jr., G – “Addy is a hard worker and an excellent teammate. This is her first year at the varsity level. Addy is very coachable and is willing to learn each and every day. She will help the team by providing depth to our backcourt at both guard positions.”

12—Kensly Stewart, Fr., PG/G – “Kensly is a freshman with worlds of talent. She is currently playing the point guard position for us so we are asking a lot of her this early in her career, but Kensly is more than capable of getting the job done. She’s a good athlete that can really guard people. I’m excited to see how her career blossoms within our program.”

20—Sage Young, Fr., Combo G – “Sage is also a freshman that we are asking a lot of. Sage can play all three guard positions and is extremely tough. She is a solid outside shooter and doesn’t back down from anything. She battles on the defensive end as well. She is very young and will really take off as she gets older. She has a bright future.”

21—Faith Laws, Jr., G/F – “Faith is a kid that truly loves the game of basketball. She has been dealing with some nagging injuries early in the season, but we hope to get her back soon. Faith can really shoot the basketball and is continuing to work hard to expand her game on both ends of the floor. Faith without a doubt is one of our leaders. She will be someone that we rely heavily on.”

22—Alexis Rhymer, Jr., G – “Alexis is a fantastic outside shooter. Lex understands that in order for her to reach her potential she has to continue to improve on D and driving the ball. That being said, her shooting will give her a chance to have a significant impact.”

24—Abby Wyatt, Soph., G/F – “Abby is a sophomore that we have elevated to the varsity. Abby is an excellent athlete. Her versatility makes her very valuable. She can play numerous positions and can really guard the basketball. Abby is a solid outside shooter and runs the floor well in transition. As she gains experience, she will continue to improve every day.”

25—Kennedy Dobson, Jr., G/F – “This is Kennedy’s first year on the varsity. Kennedy’s greatest strength is her knowledge of the game. Kennedy knows where everyone should be at all times. Typically, this keeps Kennedy in a good position. She understands spacing and the little things that are necessary to make us go.”

30—Kaylin Darveaux, Jr., G – “Kaylin is a junior that is also experiencing her first season on the varsity. Kaylin is a good athlete that can surprise you with her ability to run the floor. Kaylin is a great teammate as well. As Kaylin gains experience, she will continue to improve on both ends of the floor.”

32—Peyton McPeters, Jr., G/F – “Peyton probably returns with the most experience, albeit very little. Peyton has excellent length at 5-11. Peyton has significantly improved her outside shooting. She is a legit threat from deep now. Peyton is a kid that, along with Faith, is one of our leaders. She loves the game of basketball. As Peyton gains confidence and improves her aggressiveness to the rim, the sky’s the limit for her. We will rely heavily upon Peyton on both the offensive and defensive ends.”

34—Aubrey Harris, Sr., C – “Aubrey is our only senior. The fact that she was the only senior to continue playing all four years tells you so much about Aubrey and her commitment to her teammates and to the program. Aubrey is going to provide depth on the interior and will help on the boards.”

40—Emma England, Jr., F/C – “Emma is very long and athletic. Emma is our strongest player physically. She is an excellent rebounder. She also does a tremendous job defending the rim for us with her physicality. Emma will have a large impact in the paint. We believe she can finish around the basket as well. She has been battling a slight ankle injury, but we hope to have her back soon.”

42—Abby McMahan, Jr., F/C – “Abby is a junior that did gain a small amount of varsity experience last season. Abby has been improving daily. Abby is a kid that is willing to do whatever it takes to make her teammates better. She is a solid rebounder and passer. Abby has good touch around the basket when it comes to dump-offs and put-backs. Her high-post passing has been her greatest improvement.”

44—Tayla Carson, Soph., G – “Tayla is a sophomore that was on the varsity as a freshman but did not see a lot of playing time. Tayla is a solid outside shooter that is continuing to work on her footwork. She really wants to get better at every facet of the game. She can drive the ball strong to the basket and will continue to improve defensively.”

50—Brooklyn Thompson, Soph., F – “Brooklyn is also a sophomore that was elevated to the varsity last year but didn’t see a lot of time. Brooklyn is a physical player that enjoys mixing it up inside. That being said, her greatest strength besides her rebounding is her outside shot. Brooklyn is a solid outside shooter which will help us stretch the floor. She will continue to improve with each practice.”

McDowell Titan basketball schedule 2021-22

Date Opponent

Nov. 23 @R-S Central

Nov. 30 R-S Central

Dec. 7 @Mitchell

Dec. 9 @South Caldwell

Dec. 10 Mitchell

Dec. 14 @T.C. Roberson

Dec. 17 South Caldwell

Dec. 20 Madison

Dec. 21 @Watauga

Dec. 29 East Burke (McDowell Tournament)

Dec. 30 TBA (McDowell Tournament)

Jan. 4 North Buncombe

Jan. 5 Watauga

Jan. 7 Enka

Jan. 11 @Asheville

Jan. 14 @Erwin

Jan. 18 A.C. Reynolds

Jan. 21 T.C. Roberson

Jan. 28 @North Buncombe

Feb. 1 @Enka

Feb. 4 Asheville

Feb. 8 Erwin

Feb. 11 @A.C. Reynolds

TMC games in bold

McDowell Titan basketball schedule 2021-22

Date Opponent

Nov. 23 @R-S Central

Nov. 30 R-S Central

Dec. 7 @Mitchell

Dec. 9 @South Caldwell

Dec. 10 Mitchell

Dec. 14 @T.C. Roberson

Dec. 17 South Caldwell

Dec. 20 Madison

Dec. 21 @Watauga

Dec. 29 East Burke (McDowell Tournament)

Dec. 30 TBA (McDowell Tournament)

Jan. 4 North Buncombe

Jan. 5 Watauga

Jan. 7 Enka

Jan. 11 @Asheville

Jan. 14 @Erwin

Jan. 18 A.C. Reynolds

Jan. 21 T.C. Roberson

Jan. 28 @North Buncombe

Feb. 1 @Enka

Feb. 4 Asheville

Feb. 8 Erwin

Feb. 11 @A.C. Reynolds

TMC games in bold

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