No coach ever wants to follow a legend, even as an assistant. Ithaca High School girls basketball coach Stephanie Valleta finds herself once again having to live up to the legend of her predecessor — the legendary Faye Young Miller.
Miller, the North Carolina State basketball star and Division I coach, died in September, two years after passing the IHS coaching torch to Valleta and a Little Red squad that, this season, is set to begin a season dedicated to her memory.
“We talk about Faye at every practice, Valleta said. “She guides how we do things, from what type of humans we are to the type of basketball players we strive to be. Her main focus was to create good people who play good basketball … there are days it’s hard to go in the gym.”
Valleta hopes Miller’s spirit, and the several years of success she had over her two stints as head coach, will be emulated by the team this season.
The Little Red return nine players from last season’s 5-12 squad, losing one starter in 5-9 center Siarra Hicks. Seven seniors will suit up for a fast, athletic and long Little Red team this winter, including their leading scorer in do-it-all player Jocelin Wright, leading rebounder Brianna Hicks and all-star point guard Tatiana Minnick, who led the team in assists last season.
The team’s newcomers include 6-2 forwards Maya Frostclap and Khalena Yearwood. Frostclap is new to the team, coming over from the volleyball squad, and Yearwood, a freshman, is looking to work her way into the rotation.
“She’s raw, but she could be an immense player for us,” Valleta said. “The jump from modified to varsity is huge, so she’s working with our post players.”
Hicks, who had spent her fair share of hours in the weight room since last season, will likely be her mentor, helping to adapt Yearwood to the fast-paced, full-court offense Valleta is hoping to run.
The team built some momentum last season after winning just two games in Valleta’s first year, and coming into the season. Andy Scott’s program at Horseheads should provide another tough challenge this season, despite losing a good portion of its roster. Binghamton looks good despite losing star center Jodi-Marie Ramil to Georgetown University, but gains Alexis Wooden, who starred at Union-Endicott last season and transferred into the district. High-scoring Olivia LeBaron, from Corning, should have another good year, indicated by the 36 points she dropped on Ithaca last year.
“There is no easy out in the STAC,” Valleta said. “Every week, whether it’s M-E, Vestal or Horseheads, we need to be ready to go. I do foresee us getting a few more wins just because we have so many people coming back.”
“The girls are starting to understand that to leave no doubt is not just to win a game by 30, but to leave no doubt you’re a great person, a great student, that you’re a great friend,” Valleta said. “I think that philosophy has been producing some really cool things.”
Candor: All-state honorable mention guard Mikayla Short hopes to have a big senior campaign. Candor bowed out in the playoffs last season, 35-34, to a very good Lansing team. Somebody will need to step up to replace the output of all-star forward Rachel Barnhart, who is playing for Tompkins Cortland Community College this season.
Groton: The Indians didn’t run a deep team last season and it showed; they bowed out against Spencer-Van Etten in the IAC playoffs 62-35, reflecting the performance of last seasons’s consistently low-scoring offense. In that game, Groton’s points were provided by just five players. Leah Forehand, who scored 11 in that contest, has all-star potential this season.
Lansing: Lansing hopes to better last season’s solid 13-5 regular-season performance despite losing twin, all-state guards Shea and Maura McCartney to graduation. Missing out on a shot at a sectional title bid at the hands of Watkins Glen by just five points, the Bobcats will be looking for a solid contribution from their rising players this season.
Newfield: Expect all-state guard Maryiah Byrd to have a remarkable junior campaign as the Trojans look to build on last season’s 14-5 record, which included a thrilling 54-53 loss to Moravia in the IAC small school final. Joined by returning senior and IAC first-team guard Sierra Henry, the two will look to surpass last season’s dizzying average output of 32 combined points per game.
Dryden: The Purple Lions managed to sneak into the playoffs last season with a 7-11 record, but lost to Whitney Point by just four points in the Section 4 quarterfinal. All-star Erin Daley is gone from last season’s young seven-member squad, but there could be some chemistry forming as the team’s two returning sophomores and one returning junior progress after facing older competition last season.
Trumansburg: The departure of 5-11 center Vanessa Covert to the TC3 basketball team could leave quite a vacancy in the paint for the Raiders this season. Newcomers could be a big factor; the team looked impressive in the postseason last season, notching an eyebrow-raising 76-point win in the playoffs against Marathon. For repeat performances, all-star Anna Shelley will be looked to for support for her senior campaign as the team looks to improve on its 11-6 record.
Spencer-Van Etten: The veritable maestro of last season’s team, all-region guard Dallia Ronnick, is gone along with sidekicks Morgan Brock and Taylor Keturi, leaving room at the top for someone else to take the reins. Senior Kelsey Pierce, who put together a handful of solid scoring performances last year, could be that driver.