If you had to put a title on the story of the 2017-18 Vanoss girls basketball team, a good one might be “The Little Freshmen That Could.”
With a talented group of ninth-graders at the core, the Lady Wolves followed a season in which they won only three games with an impressive campaign that included a 25-7 record and a march to the Class 2A State Tournament.
That huge turnaround occurred despite Vanoss not having any true home games — they played their scheduled home contests at East Central University — and having to practice with their male counterparts every day inside a tiny gymnasium while their high school gym was getting a complete makeover.
For engineering that feat by his Lady Wolves, Vanoss head coach Jonathon Hurt was named the 2018 Ada News All-Area Girls Basketball Coach of the year.
Hurt and the Vanoss community knew this group would be special. They ended their junior high playing days riding a huge, two-year (maybe longer) winning streak.
Sometimes, junior high success doesn’t immediately translate to high school success. But the Lady Wolves defied the odds.
From a 3-21 record to the state tournament was indeed, impressive.
“I keep telling my assistants over the summer and early on, I just wanted to go about .500 during the season and be playing well around playoff time and make a good run so they would have some good experience as sophomores,” Hurt said.
The Lady Wolves fielded as good a defensive unit as there was in Class 2A. He said that was a big key to his team’s success.
“I think a lot of it was their toughness. We kind of rode our defense. At times, offensively we weren’t very good. But we were extremely good defensively,” he said. “Our guards did a great job of pressuring people all year long and (post player Emrie Ellis) did a good job of staying out of foul trouble underneath the basket.”
On most nights, the VHS starting lineup consisted of Ellis — considered to be one of the best freshmen in the state — along with fellow freshmen Rileigh Rush, Caitlyn Byrd, Lizzy Simpson and junior Laramie Doffin.
Hurt said it wasn’t all smooth sailing having to practice in a cramped gym at the same time as the VHS boys basketball team. It did, however, help the girls get tougher.
“I knew coming in that — and I didn’t want to use it as an excuse and never brought it up with the kids — the fact that we didn’t have our own gym and we were practicing in a PE gym with the boys every single day at the same time and really playing all our games on the road would be tough. I was afraid that wear and tear would get to us late in the year. But it didn’t and I think that reverts back to the toughness and the heart of those girls,” Hurt said.
It was also nice to have Doffin — the team’s lone returning starter — be a leader to his young guns. She averaged 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and had 40 steals.
“I relied a lot on Laramie for leadership and she did a great job of accepting whatever we threw at her. Next year that will be an even bigger role for her. We’re going to really need her,” Hurt said.
Vanoss lost seven times, all to ranked teams. During the regular season, the Lady Wolves fell to Class Class A No. 9 New Lima, Class 2A No. 1 Christian Heritage, Choctaw Central, the defending Class 3A Mississippi state champions, Class 4A No. 5 Anadarko and Class 2A No. 3 Dale.
Hurt’s squad also had victories over Class A No. 14 Stonewall, Class B No. 10 Asher, Class 2A No. 11 Latta, Class 3A No. 11 Idabel, Class A No. 15 Ft. Cobb-Broxton and perhaps the biggest one of all — Class 6A No. 18 Yukon.
Being on the same floor as those juggernauts helped during the incredible VHS playoff run. Christian Heritage defeated Vanoss in regional play and Class 2A No. 2 Cashion ousted the Lady Wolves from the 2A State Tournament.
“I think our schedule is a big reason for our success. We got a few wins that built confidence. We played some teams that really made us compete and find another level,” Hurt said.
However, in that 52-47 loss to Cashion at the state tournament, the Lady Wolves had bolted to an early 20-4 lead and appeared to have the Lady Wildcats (the 2017 Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America champions and eventual state runners-up to the aforementioned Christian Heritage team) on the ropes. But thanks to the efforts of Cashion star Sydney Manning, the Lady Wildcats rallied for the victory.
“That didn’t surprise me,” Hurt said of his team’s early success against Cashion.
“I actually thought we were better than Cashion. They had more experience and late in the game, that took over,” he explained. “Our inexperience showed a little bit. I was looking at them and it felt like I was talking to a brick wall at times. Our inexperience combined with Manning hitting some big shots is what got us beat.”
The Little Freshmen That Could has set the bar high for next season. And that’s just the way Hurt likes it.
“I told them at the state tournament that next year will be a new year. They’re going to have to start taking everyone’s best shot,” he said. “I tell the kids pressure is a privilege, so we are looking forward to that challenge next year. Next year there’s only one goal and that’s a state championship. That’s where we’re at.”
Other coaches that received consideration for the award were Byng head coach Trent Miller, who had the unranked Lady Pirates (21-9) a win away from a berth in the Class 4A State Tournament; Konawa head coach Ray Ardery, who in his first season guided the Lady Tigers to a 22-7 mark and a berth in the Class 2A Area Tournament; Jeremy Strong of Allen who led the Lady Mustangs to a 19-8 record and a pair of Class 2A Regional Tournament victories; Brain Davis of Stonewall who led his squad to a 17-12 mark and a berth in the Class A Area Tournament; and Latta’s Bruce Plunk, who had his team in the Class 2A Area Tournament with a 17-13 record.