The Sumter women’s basketball team started the season with high expectations.
After an appearance in the state championship game last spring, the Gamecocks started this year as the top-ranked 5A team. While this recognition from the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association was nice, head coach Jeff Schaffer needed to make sure his team didn’t buy into the hype too much.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” Schaffer said. “It’s hard. They see it, people tell them they’re # 1 in the state, but, we tell them to keep their feet on the ground.
“Every day in training I take care of them pretty hard, and they know I’ll be the first to pick them up off the ground when something happens, but they have to understand that it’s not because someone says that means it’s going to come to fruition. You have to go out on the basketball court and prove it every night. “
He didn’t want them to rest on their laurels. Schaffer wanted to speed up the schedule, so he got into the big tournaments as soon as possible. As a result, Sumter faced three ranked teams before Christmas.
“It’s a baptism of fire to some extent with these young children,” Schaffer said. “It gave us time to check out some of these young kids that are newer in the program, to see what they’re capable of doing. We played a pretty good competition, and it got our feet wet. sort of figured out where we are and what we need to work on. “
One of the biggest tests Sumter faced early on was Keenan, the top-ranked 3A team. Sumter lost this match from November 27, 79-44.
Schaffer wanted the game to be a wake-up call.
“I think they’re one of the best teams in the state, regardless of classification, and we looked a bit like a stag in the headlights,” Schaffer said. “I think part of that was because (South Carolina head coach) Dawn (Staley) was in the crowd and she was recruiting Milaysia (Fulwiley) there. I think our kids were a little shocked. “
Schaffer said these are the games the Lady Gamecocks need to win if they are to take the next step as a schedule. While Sumter is an eternal contender, Schaffer wants to see their program be a team that no one wants to see in the playoffs.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there,” Schaffer said. “I think with this younger crowd, especially in the sophomore class, maybe by the time they are seniors, we will develop that heritage to compete with the Dormans and the Dutch Forks and the Goose Creeks of the world.”
This second class is the driving force behind Sumter this season. Kiara Croskey is leading the charge, playing her fourth season of college basketball in just her sophomore year in high school. Along with fellow sophomores Rickell Brown and Keziyah Sanders, Sumter is one of South Carolina’s most dynamic frontcourt.
“We’re only going to go as far as these three can push us, and so far they’ve done a really good job,” Schaffer said.
Like she did last season, Croskey drives the ship. She is often the most talented player on the court, but Schaffer wants to see her become a more dominant star.
“Ki is a great kid. Her personality is a laid back person, and I try to train her to be able to flip that switch,” Schaffer said. “It’s good to be laid back, but when the game is in play, at some point you have to flip the switch and become that player A instead of that personality B. She learns that. ‘a second year, so as she gets older she will acquire these traits. “
Brown entered the season with the least experience of the line, but she has blossomed into a bigger role this season.
Schaffer appreciates her vision for the pitch as a young player.
“She can see the court extremely well, and sometimes she does passes that I’m shocked to see where to throw the basketball at any given time,” Schaffer said. “It’s not always the right way to get the ball there, but at least she sees where the ball needs to go.
“She’s probably one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever had… and she’s a great competitor. She loves to play football.”
Then there’s Sanders, who saw his role grow throughout his first year. Last year, she had the advantage of being the player the opponents had not seen in the movies. Now the teams know she can’t be left alone.
“This year, unfortunately, people have seen movies about her, so she has a bit more trouble taking her shots because they touch her a bit, and because of her size, they chase her pretty hard,” Schaffer said. “They trap her and put her in places she can’t get as a smaller guard. She’s made great strides staying out of the corner and reaching midfield.”
While Sanders doesn’t always have the highest point total, his impact is seen in the way teams defend Sumter.
“People see that they have to guard her too when she’s in the perimeter, but she’s a three-headed serpent,” Schaffer said. “If you keep it, you leave the other two open. If you keep the other two, you leave it open.
Schaffer said the thing that will take this group to the next level is on the defensive side of the ball. When stuck in defense, Sumter is unstoppable.
“It’s a challenge every day to point out to them that 80% of the time you don’t touch basketball, so what do you do with that 80%?” Schaffer said.
The Gamecocks have always enjoyed working the ball upside down under Schaffer, and that hasn’t changed, although the Lady Gamecocks are a bit heavier than they used to be. Alicia Spann brings a good experience to the center, having played a reserve role in last year’s State finalist squad.
Paired with Shamira Andrews, who plays a mix of guard and forward, Sumter has some down skills, it’s just an area that needs more development.
“We tell the kids to work on the indoor play and then let the outside play unfold. We want to involve these post players,” Schaffer said. “Alicia, just because of her size and strength, she poses a problem in the paint. She still needs to be faster with her lateral quickness to get in on some of these people and block a little better. If she does, she does. wanted to do that and put her body in the right position to go up, she’ll bounce off almost everyone on the ground because her wingspan is up there. “
Sumter enters the regional game, which started with a trip to Socastee on Friday night, as the frontrunner to win the conference. That doesn’t mean it’ll be a cake walk.
Even though Sumter won a berth to a championship game last year, the Lady Gamecocks lost two region games. Carolina Forest should be a threat as they enter the regional game 8-4.
Schaffer noted that each team in the region offers a different challenge.
“Socastee has a post player who is very present in the painting. I think she is at least 6’4”. Then when you go to play against Carolina Forest, they’re a bit more custodial, ”Schaffer said. “We’re going to have different challenges with each of these groups. “
The Lady Gamecocks want to win the region, but their goals are much broader in the grand scheme of things.
Schaffer wants to follow the plan of the team that beat them in last year’s league game. Clover narrowly lost the championship in 2020 before returning to beat Sumter last year. Schaffer hopes the experience the Lady Gamecocks gained last year will take them to the top.
“We have to be that team with the chip on our shoulders. Yes, we probably should have won a state championship last year, but last year is over. You have to forget that,” Schaffer said. “My approach has always been that a car’s windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason. What’s in front of you has to be your goal.”