JONESBORO — While Elauna Eaton is not walking through the door, as Nettleton coach Jason Smith puts it, not all of the Lady Raiders’ talent walked out with Eaton when she graduated last spring.
Nettleton continues to feature an NCAA Division I-level recruit a season after winning the first girls’ state basketball championship in school history. The Lady Raiders may not have an abundance of height, but their backcourt figures to cause opponents a few headaches.
“I think that for the first time in a long time, we get to play the role of the underdog a little bit. That’s exciting for a lot of reasons,” Smith said. “I really like this bunch. I think we have some great guards. I think our guards, they’re little bitty, but I like the way they play. We’re not as deep as we’ve been in years past, but these kids really like each other and really share the ball well.
“I think we’ll be able to shoot it pretty well and hopefully we can defend. We’ll have to get creative with the way we’re trying to defend some of the bigger kids in our league, but I really like this team. I think they’re going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
Lady Raider fans are accustomed to being entertained after watching the team post a 138-17 record over the past five seasons.
Ranked by ESPN as one of the top 50 recruits in the 2020 class, Eaton averaged 23.1 points and 7.9 rebounds as a senior after signing with Arkansas last November. She led Nettleton to a 27-5 record and a place opposite Greenwood in the state championship game, which was postponed and ultimately canceled because of COVID-19. Both teams were named state champions.
Nettleton also lost point guard Travia Woodruff and forward Daly Dacus to graduation, but two starters return as Smith enters his 15th season as the Lady Raiders’ head coach.
“We feel like we have enough experience. We know what it takes,” said Smith, who has a 466-172 record in 22 seasons as a head coach. “It’s just going to be, can we hold our own on the glass, being as small as we are, and can we keep people in front of us? Those are our two main concerns.”
All-state guard Briley Pena, who scored 1,000-plus points in her first two years of high school basketball, returns to lead the Lady Raiders.
Pena, a 5-5 junior, was Nettleton’s second-leading scorer last season at 12.3 points per game, closing the season with 49 points in the Lady Raiders’ three state tournament victories. She shot 47 percent from the field overall, including 44 percent from the 3-point line, and connected on 89 percent from the free throw line.
Smith said Pena has scholarship offers from Arkansas State, Murray State and Austin Peay State as well as interest from a dozen or more other Division I programs.
“I think we’ll have a lot of things that will look like when Jordan Elder was here as far as running the point, but then trying to get creative and find some way to get her some shots as well. I think she’ll definitely be the focus,” Smith said. “She’s earned that. She’s put in the work, put in the time, done two-a-days during quarantine. She’s definitely a gym rat. She’ll bring it up and we’re going to try to figure out ways to get her a lot of shots.”
Pena also contributed in other categories as a sophomore, averaging 3.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Last season she had just 33 turnovers while averaging more than 27 minutes per game.
Guard Wakiryah Daniels, a 5-7 senior, also returns to the starting lineup after averaging 8.9 points, third on the team, and 3.2 rebounds last season. Laila Eliotti, a 5-4 senior, moves into the starting backcourt after playing in a reserve role last season. Natasia Oliver, a 5-6 senior, will play on the front line.
Junior D’maria Daniels is another key player in the backcourt. Juniors Alexa Jackson and Cydney Crippen and sophomores Kiasia Burns and Akyria James are also expected to contribute.
The 5A-East conference gains a contender with the addition of Batesville, which features Missouri signee Izzy Higginbottom. Smith also expects Jonesboro to be one of the favorites.