Lady Blazers hope experience helps in close games

Valley View’s Hunter Gibson shoots over Marmaduke defenders during a game in last season’s Northeast Arkansas Invitational tournament.

JONESBORO — Close games usually didn’t go Valley View’s way last season.

The Lady Blazers had a 2-8 record in games decided by six points or less, including an 0-6 mark when the margin was three points or less. Angie Ellis, Valley View’s second-year head coach, hopes her team’s experience in those situations will help this winter.

“We just did not do a good job of competing until the end and pulling out the win,” Ellis said. “I’m hoping with some individuals with experience that we can once again compete with everybody in our conference, but be able to take those games down to the wire, have a player or two step up and go steal those wins for us.

“That’s going to be our focus this year, having kids with the ball in their hands at the end of the game and getting the job done. A lot of that comes with experience and leadership.”

Valley View returns five players who played considerable minutes last season, when the Lady Blazers finished 12-14 overall and 5-9 in the 4A-3, and adds a couple of sophomores from a junior high team that won conference and district championships.

The Lady Blazers return two full-time starters in 5-9 senior guard Emma Higgins and 5-10 junior guard Hunter Gibson, both of whom led the team in scoring on occasion.

“Those two will hopefully play a bigger role than they did last year,” Ellis said. “I’m looking forward to them putting up big numbers this year having another year of senior high experience under their belt, especially Hunter, who was a sophomore last year. I’m looking for those two to have good years.”

Higgins contributes in several statistical categories. Ellis said Higgins led Valley View in steals while finishing second on the team in rebounds and assists last season. Higgins also showed scoring ability while putting up 21 points against Pocahontas and 19 against Beebe.

“Emma’s kind of that all-around athlete,” Ellis said. “We’ve worked hard with her on attacking the rim and her mid-range jumper. She is utilized on both ends of the court.”

Ellis said Gibson is a good outside shooter who averaged around 11 points per game. She scored 25 points in the season opener against Rivercrest. Last season, she scored 21 points against Marmaduke in the Northeast Arkansas Invitational, 17 against Pocahontas and 16 against Batesville and Little Rock Hall.

Hadden Lieblong, a 5-10 junior, is working in a frontcourt role after playing guard in junior high, Ellis said.

“She is one of our best vocal leaders and had some good games last year,” Ellis said. “I’m hoping she’s a little more consistent this year with scoring and on the defensive end.”

Ellis said 5-6 junior Willow Carter will compete for a starting role at forward after playing in primarily a reserve role last season. Kaleigh George, a 5-5 senior guard, contributed in the second half of the season last year after returning from a foot injury.

Morghan Weaver, a 5-11 sophomore, is considered Valley View’s most versatile player by Ellis.

“She will be used to play all five spots this year,” Ellis said. “You’re going to see her versatility because she is a guard by nature, but she’s had a growth spurt and she’s the tallest kid on the team. If we need her in the post, she’ll be able to do that for us also with her height. She’s going to bring a little bit of everything for us this year.”

Anna Winkfield, a 5-8 sophomore, will add athleticism in the post, Ellis said.

“I feel like we may be more athletic this year, but it’s going to be trying to find the right five on the court, kind of like last year, and the right chemistry,” Ellis said. “I’d like to think we’ll shoot it better this year than we did last year. We spent a lot of time in the offseason and preseason just putting a lot of shots up.

“Anna is undersized. She’s a tremendous athlete, but she’s only 5-8. We’re going to be undersized in the post, but I’m hoping she can make up some of that ground with her speed.”

The 4A-3 has a different look with Batesville moving up to Class 5A, replaced by Trumann. Southside tied Batesville atop the league standings last season, with Pocahontas finishing third and fourth in the regular season.

Both Southside and Pocahontas played in the state tournament, as did Batesville.

“We’re in probably the toughest conference in the state. I know we lost Batesville, but three of our four teams that qualified for regionals ended up making it to the state tournament,” Ellis said. “I would like to see our athleticism be better this year, us be able to run the floor better this year. I think last year we competed with everybody besides Batesville a couple of times, but it was just hard for us to get over that hump.”