Fourteen triple-doubles. Six-hundred eighty-nine career blocked shots. That’s what walked out the door when Gabby Bowie graduated from Sayre last year.
The Spartans were expected to have a drop-off without the 6-foot-3 daughter of former University of Kentucky star Sam Bowie. Yet here they are, 13-2 and looking like favorites to win their third straight 11th Region All “A” Classic championship.
Sophomore Dee Dee Wheeler has upped her scoring average to 18.2 points per game, about seven more than a season ago. Lainey Tew, a sophomore who previously backed up Bowie, has gone from basically a nonfactor offensively to scoring 5.1 points per game. Aside from those gains, individual production across the board is about the same as last year.
Sayre made it to this point not with a blistering offense but a suffocating 2-3 zone in which its guards can excel in the absence of an intimidating post presence. It’s allowing 29.4 points per game — second fewest in the state behind Kentucky School for the Deaf — entering its All “A” opener against host Berea on Wednesday.
“It’s hard because you have to be in the right place at the right time, and if you’re not it messes everything up,” Wheeler said of the team’s defensive approach. “But when we do it right, it works really well and we stop people from shooting. We always have to stop penetration because if we let them in everything comes apart and there’s always an easy pass.”
Hannah Brady, the team’s only senior, quarterbacks an offense that went from post-heavy to guard-centric in a hurry. She said Coach Scott Sutton calls her, Wheeler and junior guard Ellie Alford a “three-headed monster.”
Brady was hobbled by a hamstring injury down the stretch of the Spartans’ surprise win over Bryan Station last Monday, but she will be good to go for an All “A” run. While she likes racking up assists and “making sure everyone else gets their awesome plays,” she enjoyed getting “to have one special moment” as she stepped up to the line in the waning seconds and nailed two free throws against the Defenders.
“Being able to make those plays and seeing (the younger girls) get excited during games and stuff, I know everyone wants it as bad as I do,” Brady said. “They all wanna make sure my senior season’s great ... so I wanna make sure I give them everything I can and make it a good season for them too.”
Sutton was a point guard in his playing days, which “he doesn’t let us forget,” Alford said with a laugh. That background has helped hasten their development, though. “He knows what it’s like to be a guard. He knows what to do when in a sticky situation,” she said.
Sydney Strup, who tore an ACL in Sayre’s first game last season, has worked herself back into basketball shape after a season of soccer. She’s a defender on the pitch — she hopes to play soccer in college — which she said has made her more of a defensive player on the court.
Her game’s opening up, though.
“I was obviously a little rusty this year, but now I’m finally getting more comfortable with being able to cut and pivot,” Strup said, “and now I can be more of an offensive threat for the team. In the beginning of the season I was more just defensive and shy.”
The first couple of post-Bowie practices didn’t look so good, Strup said, but when game time arrived everyone stepped up their play.
“It was just amusing to see us all grow into the people we are,” she said.
It’ll be amusing, too, to watch a confident group of Spartans try to win two games and get back to the statewide All “A” tournament in Frankfort. They made history by becoming the first group of Sayre girls to win the 11th Region All “A” title in 2014; they would make more by advancing past the first round in Frankfort.
“We wanna win our region and ... make it to state,” Brady said. “We don’t wanna lose that first game. We definitely have a mind-set of getting past that first game and making it further than we have ever.”
All “A” Classic
Where: Berea High School
What: Boys’ and girls’ tournaments for the 120 schools with the smallest enrollment in Kentucky. Sixteen boys’ and sixteen girls’ regional winners advance to statewide tournament to be played Jan. 27-31 in Frankfort.