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Meridian's Cymone Ballard (20) looks to go to the basket past Okaw Valley's Natalie Jeffers (15) during the 1A Girls Super-Sectional last season in Salem. 

For Meridian coach Jerry Johnson, last year represented the culmination of a lot of hard work. The Bobcats won their first Class 1A sectional title at Goreville, blitzing New Athens 67-53 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that margin suggests. Johnson said after the game that he had to suppress the urge to cry.

Not even a Super-Sectional loss to Okaw Valley three days later could dim the glow.

“I don’t think words could explain how we felt after that game,” Johnson said of the win over New Athens. “It was an exciting year. They told us we’d never make it past the regionals. We showed some people.”

Meridian is just a long 3-pointer from the Missouri state line. The Bobcats are in show-me mode this winter.

All five starters from last year’s team graduated. That means no more Isis Mack outpacing opposing guards, no more Kayah Jeter dominating inside, and no more Alexis Crain and Cymone Ballard creating havoc on both ends of the floor.

This is a new team in Mounds, and Johnson is mindful that it will take some time, even as at least two coaches in the South Egyptian Conference pick Meridian to win the title.

“I don’t have any seniors, just like when I started coaching,” he said. “Three juniors, four freshmen. We have a lot of talent and a lot of skills, but it will have to be honed. I hope they will catch on to the system and how we want to play.”

Johnson is a defensive-minded coach. More often than not at every level of basketball, you inherit players who base their self-worth on how well they score. No one goes to bed dreaming of locking down in a defensive stance for 35 or 40 seconds, then doing it again and again.

With an inexperienced team, Johnson figures the ability to defend will be even more important. Offense will come and go, especially with a squad which will take a while to cohere, but defense can be the great equalizer.

“I’ve been talking to them since sixth grade as to what they need to do to play at this level,” Johnson said. “I think they’re physically ready for it, but not mentally ready. The biggest part of it is conditioning. You have to teach your muscles to stay in a defensive position.

“We have to play good defense because of our low numbers. A lot of these girls have never played at this level, where your defense is your offense.”

If he so chooses, Johnson could simply slip in a video of his team’s sectional championship game from last February as a teaching tool. He could show how good athletes with experience are able to speed a team up, which might be the toughest thing to do in basketball, simply by defending so fiercely that New Athens settled for shots because it was tired of working for better ones.

But he also knows this team must build its identity, a process that figures to take the better part of this season, even if they win games along the way.

“The freshmen are going to have to come in and play a lot of minutes,” Johnson said. “I’m not a guy who coaches on wins or losses. If you’re coming in and playing 110 percent, I’m satisfied. They are willing to learn and listen, and that’s way more than half the battle.”

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