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No. 1 Lady Commodores set to defend title

By Dustin Kent747-5065 | @PCNHDustinKentdkent@pcnh.com

 

PANAMA CITY — With six sophomores returning from last year’s national championship team, Gulf Coast coach Roonie Scovel hoped that an unusual level of experience would help the Lady Commodores make up the loss of marquee talents like Kristina King and Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau, now at West Virginia and Texas respectively.

 

But after a pair of significant injuries to key players, the Lady Commodores head into Friday’s season-opener against NJCAA No. 5 Walters State in Morristown, Tenn., with more question marks than their coach anticipated.

 

Starting shooting guard Amanda Paschal, a Kentucky commit, tore her ACL in a preseason scrimmage and is lost for the season. Key reserve guard Raven Fox, who averaged 9.2 points per game as a freshman, is out indefinitely after suffering a head injury in another preseason game.

Gulf Coast still returns four rotation players from last season, though only small forward Maria Morales Castro was a regular starter as a freshman.

 

“Maria is really our only returning player with a ton of experience, so we’re going to have to have a quick learning curve for the newcomers,” Scovel said. “We lost two All-Americans and we lost size, and we lost two big players from last year, so we’ll have to adjust.”

 

Scovel said it’s hard to put a timetable on Fox’s return, though Fox said she hoped to be back by the end of November. Paschal will not return, however, with the coach saying that it’s a loss that will be felt on and off the court.

 

“Oh it’s huge,” she said. “Amanda is our confidence, our voice, our boldness, our veteran experience at guard. “She made the all region team, the national tournament team; she was coming back and playing great. It’s a huge loss, but it happens and you have to move on. I feel bad for Amanda because she worked really hard in the offseason to get better and she did get better. She was excited about playing this year, so my heart goes out to Amanda.”

 

While the loss of Paschal subtracts both talent and maturity from the Gulf Coast rotation, there is still plenty of talent and some quality experience remaining on the roster. Castro had an impressive freshman season, finishing fourth on the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game and led the team with 49 made 3-pointers.

 

Shooting guard Shaterrika O’Neal returns after averaging 8.1 points as a freshman while shooting 35.6 percent from the 3-point line, including 9.8 points per game in Panhandle Conference play. Point guard Ty Purifoy struggled to find consistent offense through much of last season, but came on toward the end of the year and played a pivotal role during the Lady Commodores’ postseason run.

 

In the national championship game win over Trinity Valley, Purifoy played 27 strong minutes, hitting two 3-pointers and helping key the GC defense with her harassing ball pressure. Scovel said that Purifoy and O’Neal, as well as Castro, have taken steps forward and are ready to play bigger roles as sophomores.

 

“I think Ty is doing a great job with running and show and managing the team,” she said. “She’s a great defender and she was huge in us winning that title game against Trinity. We’re expecting great things from Ty.

 

“(O’Neal) has just been playing great and working really, really hard. She’s a great defender. Maria is shooting the ball well. She had a great season last year, but she’ll probably have to produce a little more offensively to make up for what we lost. I think (Castro and O’Neal) are playing with a little more confidence offensively and both will have to produce a little more for us to be successful.”

 

While the loss of King and Caron-Goudreau and the injuries to Paschal and Fox have left an experience void, there is no shortage of talent for the Lady Commodores thanks to a redshirt freshman post player, a sharpshooting Division-I transfer, and a pair of former North Carolina signees.

The 6-4 center Fatou Diagne, who had to redshirt last season due to an injury, is a Purdue commitment who gives Gulf Coast a long and athletic presence on the interior, while 5-10 wing Taylor Emery provides a long-range shooting threat after averaging 6.2 points per game for Tulane last season.

 

Jhileiya Dunlap, a 6-2 post, and Shayla Bennett, a 5-9 guard, both former UNC signees, give Gulf Coast dynamic talents on the interior and perimeter.

 

“We have some interesting pieces and they’re working hard,” Scovel said. “Whatever happens, we certainly can’t complain because we’re putting everything in it. We just don’t have as much veteran play coming back because of those injuries, so we’ve got to grow up quick and

we’ve got to learn to compete.

 

“We have some pieces, but the biggest thing is how we react under pressure without having that veteran play. I think composure will be the key word, whether we have it or not.”

 

Despite a 32-1 record last year, Gulf Coast did face some adversity through the season, taking tough, narrow non-conference wins over Eastern Florida State and Shelton State early in the year, rallying from 11 points down in the closing minutes to beat Northwest Florida State, and having to play the first four games of the conference schedule without an injured Caron-Goudreau.

 

Having the steadying force of King and Caron-Goudreau helped the Lady Commodores thrive in pressure-packed situations, and Scovel said finding a way to deal with those challenging moments without those two will be important for this group.

 

“There’s no replacement for what Kris gave us as a physical athlete, and really we haven’t had a replacement for Audrey for what she did as a team leader with togetherness and oneness, all those intangibles,” she said. “We haven’t replaced that. Amanda probably was the closest and now we’ve lost her too. We’ll have to do it by committee, which is fine because it’s a team game. We just have to grow up quickly.”

 

It may seem like a lot of concern for a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason national and state polls; though Scovel said she puts very little stock into those rankings at this point.

 

“I think part of that is probably based on last year, and I always have the philosophy that I’ll give it to them until they get beat,” she said. “So we may only have it for one week after we start playing, so we better enjoy it now and throw our chest out for the moment because we might not be throwing it out too much after that first game. At the same time, it’s a new challenge for us, so let’s go out and play and see what we can do. This (first game) will tell a lot about us.”

 

From the players’ perspective, Fox said starting the season out at No. 1 in the country doesn’t mean that much.

 

“We don’t really think about it,” she said. “We’ve got to stay humble because anything can change. It’s good to be No. 1, but I think we’ll just stay humble as a team and keep working to get better.”

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