Last season was a letdown year for head coach Tiffani Johnson and her Newton Rams.
One year removed from a state title appearance, the Rams never managed to find a rhythm and lost seven out of their last eight games, including their first-round playoff matchup against North Forsyth.
Heading into this season, Johnson is ready to hit the reset button.
“The difficult part (last season) was that the girls didn’t know how to handle the expectations,” Johnson said. “I think that they felt maybe a little overwhelmed by trying to fill those shoes, or thinking that just because they wore the same jersey or they were on that team that they could do the same things.”
With several key figures returning for their senior seasons in starting point guard Maka’ya Cushion, Ashanti Wright and Briyanna Thompson, Johnson hopes her upperclassmen are ready to play with a chip on their shoulders.
“I sure hope so,” Johnson said. “I think now, a lot of the seniors see the missed opportunity that they had last year and have done the work not to let that happen again.”
Johnson points to Cushion, better known as pillow to her teammates, as being the leading catalyst for the Rams this season. Cushion averaged 10 points and six assists in her first year as a starter and is looking to take an even bigger step in year No. 2.
“She’s been a great leader,” Johnson said of Cushion. “She is a quiet leader. She’s vocal sometimes, but her effort and her consistency has helped her to be such a great leader and an asset to the program. We’re excited to see what she does her senior year and hopefully that turns into opportunities after graduation.”
While Cushion is expected to be the Rams’ primary ball handler this season, the addition of sophomore guard Ashleigh Norris, a Salem transfer, is someone Johnson is expecting big things out of.
Whether or not Johnson sees Norris as a starter as this point in the game remains to be seen.
“Definitely a big edition,” Johnson said of Norris. “She’s a major talent and a great kid. Right now it’s everything about putting the right pieces where. We have eight returning, but seven are new. So there’s still a lot of plug-and-play to see who is where. But she will definitely be a major addition to the program.”
After graduating their key post presence from last season in Rachel Hilliard, Johnson is looking at several skilled post players ready to fill her void. That list starts with Thompson.
“Briyanna has put in a lot of work this summer getting more comfortable on the floor,” Johnson said. “We have some new big girls, that with the experience and getting more comfortable will definitely be some great assets to the program.”
Johnson is also expecting big things from Wright, who stands at six feet tall and will serve as a versatile weapon for the Rams.
“I’m hoping she exposes more of all the things she’s able to do this year,” Johnson said of Wright. “Not be as shy. I think she will be a lot more aggressive. We’ve talked about her using her size and her length. I think she’s going to be a much better player on the floor.”
With an experienced varsity class coupled with an intriguing crop of underclassmen, Johnson expects their biggest change from last year to be their increased depth.
With added depth, Johnson’s creativeness as a coach — she hopes — will bode well for the team.
“I think being able to keep fresh legs on the floor with the style of play that we like to play will definitely be an advantage,” Johnson said. “I think that will be the biggest difference in the team from last year to this year.”
The Rams will look to continue their playoff streak this season, which currently stands at nine years in a row. Just reaching the postseason, however, will not be enough in the eyes of Johnson.
“We’re trying to win ball games,” Johnson said. “That’s where we are right now. It’s time to close games and get wins. The energy and effort level is definitely different at this point from last year. I’m excited about seeing what the product looks like in the future.”