FORT VALLEY — There is almost nothing but youth in front of Lonnie Bartley every time he leads practice or works the sideline during games.
The veteran Fort Valley State head women’s basketball coach has no seniors on his team. Only one of three juniors played last season, and an experienced sophomore is out for the season with a torn ACL.
The freshman-heavy Lady Wildcats are making up for inexperience with quickness, pressure and perhaps some premature maturity, all of which has them undefeated in SIAC play at 8-0 (9-4 overall) after Monday night’s 71-53 win over Claflin.
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Bartley is having a nice ride down Memory Lane with what he has seen.
“I’m happy that we’re getting after people in the full-court pressure,” Bartley said. “That’s been the key to a lot of our wins. We haven’t been able to do that in a number of years. We haven’t been able to (press) since that team that won four championships in a row.”
That run ended with the 2002-03 squad, the last time FVSU won the SIAC tournament. Since Bartley took over in 1984-85, FVSU has never gone this long without the SIAC tournament trophy.
The younger players might press their way into changing that.
“We’ve got some energetic players, and a lot of them come from pressing high school teams,” Bartley said. “And they’re young. They should be able to run and wear those seniors down.”
Bartley can say that since he has no seniors. All-conference guard Takesha Riggs is the veteran, a junior who is in the SIAC top 10 in five categories. Shekiya Tarpkins is a junior who hasn’t played the past two seasons but was the SIAC player of the year for the 2005-06 season. She is teaming with Riggs for a serious 1-2 punch. Tarpkins is also ranked in the top-10 in five categories.
“She gives me the best passes,” Riggs said. “She’s the best quarterback on the team. She’s Tony Romo, and I’m Terrell Owens, without the problems.”
Riggs and Tarpkins are having a better January, however, as are all the Wildcats. Kendra Evans, a freshman from Greene County, has been of major impact. The 5-foot-10 forward has quickness to go with size and keys the pressure.
“I like it,” said Evans, a serious candidate to record a dunk before the season is over, let alone her FVSU career. “I tip the ball as it’s coming in and we get a steal, and we score.”
Tarpkins, another key player, said the pressure is successful because it comes from all corners, and it has led to FVSU shooting better than in recent seasons.
“It’s the whole team,” said Tarpkins, who focused on academics while away from basketball. “It’s a team thing, really.”
Riggs, oddly, saw great potential after FVSU’s worst loss, 85-63 to West Georgia in the season opener. The three ensuing margins of defeat have totaled only 17 points.
“Even though we got blown out, I saw the potential in the freshmen,” she said. “They really worked hard; they were still going at it. They ask questions.”
Seven players have played in the 12 games preceding Monday night’s battle with Claflin. Riggs and Tarpkins are the only ones to start every game. Sophomore Tierra Washington is out for the year, and freshman Yasheeka Jones and sophomore KaDeidra Freeland have missed some time after rolling an ankle.
Bartley said the rotation will increase with the conference schedule picking up, a change from his pre-conference strategy of playing fewer early-season games with a young team.
That will lead to more minutes for some of the Middle Georgians on the roster: freshmen Brandi Haynes of West Laurens, Kim Burgess of Perry and Jasmine Birdsong of Hancock Central.
Burgess has played in every game and averages 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds in 15.9 minutes.
Chemistry on and off the court has been solid, making Riggs very happy.
“There are more people to get the ball to I’m more confident (in),” said Riggs, who will make a run at player of the year, as will Tarpkins. “There are less letdowns.”
Riggs said a big key was, as she put it, “Kill the Freshmen” week where upperclassmen, including some former players, took on the newcomers in a series of pickup games.
“Despite the fact that we kept beating them over and over, they kept coming back for more,” said Riggs, noting with a smile that the freshmen won only once and celebrated. “There was no love lost. We looked like enemies out there on the floor.”
The SIAC is feeling the effects of the ensuing unification.