The Heritage win got your attention.
No Alcoa girls’ team had beaten the Lady Mountaineers since the Dawn Marsh era of the early 1980s.
When a win over William Blount followed a week later, you knew it wasn’t a fluke.
As the high school basketball season hits the holiday tournament circuit, few teams are hotter locally than coach Tonya Gay’s Lady Tornadoes. At 7-2, Class AA Alcoa is off to one of its best starts in some time, with victories over two additional AAA schools - South-Doyle and Bearden - to go with the Lady Mountaineer and Lady Governor wins.
An Alcoa girls’ team hasn’t reached the state basketball tournament since the Marsh years, and it’s much too early for that kind of talk right now, Gay said. Still, the bright young coach likes what she’s seeing.
“They’re playing with a lot of intensity right now,” Gay said, “and they’re finding their chemistry as a team.”
Where past Alcoa teams with deep postseason aspirations have always had the one big scorer - Marsh and former Lady Tornado bomber Koral Stache, just to name a couple - Gay’s current club has displayed remarkable balance thus far.
Sure, there’s a big-time scorer in sophomore Katie Stubblefield, who’s 15.3 points per game and 43 percent shooting from 3-point range would play anywhere. The Stubblefield family is the stuff of legend in Alcoa, with several siblings having passed through the school, each with perfect, 4.0 grade point averages in the classroom, each with truly unconscious range from behind the 3-point line.
“She (Stubblefield) has just been shooting very well lately,” Gay said.
Junior shooting guard Alischa Shiverdecker was an All-District 4AA selection a year ago, and her 11.6 points an outing comes complete with eye-popping athleticism. No other Lady Tornado averages as much as 10 per game, however, which is exactly the way Gay likes it.
“We’re able, at least thus far, to distribute the scoring pretty evenly and have few girls in double figures,” she said.
The balance Gay prizes is perhaps best typified by freshman point guard Kayla Newman. Last season’s Blount County Middle School Player of the Year, Newman factors heavily in Alcoa’s future. Gay has steadily increased the budding prospect’s minutes this season, and Newman has responded with 7.7 points and 2.2 assists per game.
“She’s so strong, and she has got great awareness,” Gay said. “I think with more time on the court, she’s going to learn quicker and will have a greater impact the next three years.”
As the numbers would indicate, Gay has done anything but put too much on Newman too soon. Lone senior Kylie Russell sets the table for Alcoa with a team-leading 2.5 assists per game. Capable of explosive scoring, the tenacious point guard buried a stunning seven 3-pointers in a contest last season and has proven the perfect player to bring Newman along at just the right pace.
Russell’s unique sense of history among Lady Tornadoes - she arrived four years ago with Gay - does wonders for the rest of the squad, too.
“She has seen the program when we haven’t won a lot of games,” Gay said. “She can remind the girls of what it was like.”
While Alcoa lacks a towering presence in the post, junior Megan Hill has ensured Alcoa hasn’t gone wanting there, her 6.3 points per game providing solid scoring from the foul line down. Sophomore Tiffanie Moore, 4.6 points per game, is one of the best female athletes in the school at the wing opposite Shiverdecker.
“Tiffanie is just a really strong player who can take you inside and out,” Gay said.
Kolbie Goddard, 5.5 points, Kylee Haynes, 4.2, round out a team capable of finding scoring from all sides.
“They’ve got all the things you need to have,” Heritage coach Rick Howard said. “They could use a big girl, but they’re quick, and they play good defense.”
Shiverdecker fired in 16 in the 55-51 win over the Lady Mountaineers, with Stubblefield finishing with 13 on 5-of-11 shooting. Newman chipped in seven points, junior Elly Loy six. It’s what happened a week later that said quite a bit, the Lady Tornadoes leading William Blount by as many as 20 points for much of the second half before a Lady Governor rally trimmed the final margin to 59-55.
There’s still a great deal of work to be done between now and March, Gay said. The Lady Tornadoes return to action at the Webb Christmas tournament on Monday, with a showdown with arch-rival Maryville looming in a month’s time.
It would be a mistake to take Alcoa’s fast start as something that will simply fizzle as the season progresses, Howard said. Neither should the Lady Tornadoes be looked upon as simply a one-year wonder.
“They’re all back (next season),” he said.