There are three reasons why the Carterville girls should contend to add a lot of hardware to the trophy case this winter.
Juniors Jeniah Thompson, Megan Barton and Abbey Crain are three of the best players in Southern Illinois. What’s more, they’re three different types of players, making it easy for sixth-year coach Matt Crain to devise a game plan.
“Three different pieces,” Crain said Tuesday before practice. “The other girls fit around them. It makes it a little easier as a coach when they go where you want them to go. They play together well, and have improved on the knowledge on each other’s game. They all want each other to succeed.”
Thompson is the go-to option when the Lions need a bucket. She led them in scoring last year with 14.5 points and averaged 11 rebounds. She’s strong enough to overpower smaller defenders inside and skilled enough to beat bigger defenders off the dribble.
In a 62-44 win on Jan. 2 at Pinckneyville, Thompson put everything together for a career-high 32 points on just 16 shot attempts, going 7-for-7 at the line and mixing in a 3-pointer.
“Few teams in Southern Illinois are going to be able to match up with her,” Panthers coach Alan Engelhardt said that night.
Barton is simply a great athlete who can run and jump with anyone on the floor. She contributed 12.5 points and six rebounds per game while creating havoc defensively with her ability to get into passing lanes and steal the ball.
Abbey Crain, the coach’s daughter, runs the offense. She provides the ability to pass for profit while hitting from the perimeter. Last year, Crain chipped in 12 points and six assists per game.
But none of the three could get it going in a Class 3A sectional semifinal at Carbondale last February against East St. Louis. The Flyerettes were long, starting a pair of six-footers, and athletic enough to contest almost every shot.
Thompson, Barton and Abbey Crain were each held under their averages. No one else could pick up any slack. At night’s end, the scoreboard – East St. Louis 53, Carterville 34 – seemed as much an accuser as fact.
Matt Crain said the trio has learned from that night.
“We hadn’t seen that kind of length,” he said. “They’re now more confident in their abilities. They’ve played AAU all summer, so they have played against better competition. They’ve all gotten bigger, faster and stronger as well.”
Add experienced players like McKenzie Rogman, Lexi Swalls and Summer Rains to the mix, and the Lions appear more than capable of winning their seventh straight regional title. The trick is getting past the sectionals, which they haven’t done in that span.
With a nucleus like Thompson, Barton and Abbey Crain back, Carterville might be able to kick that sectional door down. First things first, it has to retrace the steps it should pretty well have memorized by now.
“The expectations are we want to contend for the conference title and win a regional,” Matt Crain said. “We’d also like to take that next step, but we have lots of steps to take before we get there.”