Written by: Matt Harris
5A High Country Conference (District 5-6)
PRESEASON COACHES POLL
4. Thunder Ridge
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Makenna Baker, Senior, Highland
Tylie Jones, Sophomore, Rigby
Mallori Vawdrey, Senior, Highland
Emma Shippen, Senior, Rigby
Savanah Dick, Senior, Madison
Lauren Davenport, Sophomore, Thunder Ridge
As the calendar flips to the new basketball season, a changing of the guard is in the works in the 5A High Country Conference. Defending district champion Bonneville dropped down to the 4A classification along with conference foe and rival Hillcrest, while Thunder Ridge joins the conference in their first year of existence.
Last season, both Bonneville and Highland represented the conference at the 5A state tournament with the Bees bringing home the consolation trophy. This year, Highland will look to return to the tournament for the 12th consecutive year under the direction of new head coach Gino Mariani, who steps in to replace Tony Green.
Mariani, who is no stranger to success in high school sports as the lead man for Highland’s wildly successful football program, takes over a team that brings back senior All-State guard Makenna Baker along with key contributors in senior Mallori Vawdrey and Maysi Thompson. The Rams went 16-11 last season.
“I’m excited to see the girls in a new system and how well they pick up that system,” said Mariani. “They will be doing and running things that are in sharp contrast to what they are used to.”
The changes within their offensive and defensive strategies should keep opposing teams off balance as well. Mariani said that they will adapt their system to the personnel on the floor.
“We are short all the way around so we need to make up for the lack of height in hustle, quickness, and speed. Once the girls get that, we could be good,” he said, adding that he expects seniors Bailey Farrer and Kim Hawes along with sophomore Meagan Calley to play increased roles on the team this year.
Much like Highland, the Rigby Trojans are a team that is expected to contend for a berth to the state tournament this year. Also like Highland, the Trojans will roll out a lot of lineups that are absent height.
“We are small and will need to run the floor,” said second year head coach Troy Shippen. “I’m excited about the hustle and enthusiasm that we have for the game. Our shooting and floor speed have increased.”
The Trojans return several key players including seniors Emma Shippen and Summer Dabell, along with standout sophomore Tylie Jones. That trio will lean on their returning experience to help get Rigby to the 5A state tournament for the first time in school history.
“Our team chemistry is high and the girls are all a really tight group,” said Shippen, who noted that his team will have to be able to stop the low post better and rebound this season with Jett Taylor having graduated. The Trojans finished last year’s campaign with a 15-8 record.
Rigby’s northward rival, the Madison Bobcats, will aim to get back to state for the first time since 2017 but will do so with a new cast of characters in Rexburg.
Longtime Madison head coach Traci Peterson says that her crew for the 2018-19 campaign will feature a youth movement outside of returning senior Savanah Dick.
“We are young and inexperienced but have a lot of room for growth,” she said.
Look for junior Blaire Gordon and sophomore Sid Parker, both at the post position, to make an impact this season. Madison is forced to replace the now-graduated Hannah Wilson, who was a primary focal point of opposing teams, and also Bethany Dow who moved to Preston.
Peterson says that she sees promising things from this year’s team, but know that a lot of work still needs to be done.
“We have good chemistry but we need to be more disciplined,” she said. Madison finished 14-9 last season, missing out on the state tournament.
A team that many are curious about is the new kid on the block, the Thunder Ridge Titans. The new school on the east side of Idaho Falls is in their first year of existence and are starting everything from scratch.
For new head coach Jeremy Spencer, who has spent time coaching at Hillcrest and the Idaho Storm AAU club, building the program from the ground up was a hectic experience at first but knows that they are on the right track.
“The school was still being built over the summer so we were unable to order any equipment for the girls,” said Spencer. “Trying to figure out who was going to attend Thunder Ridge, who is staying at their current school, trying to coordinate summer activities, tournaments, camps, etc., all while not really knowing who would be attending Thunder Ridge. So that part of the process was difficult. But, as we keep pressing forward we all learn together and in turn it makes us grow stronger. Everyone knows we are all in this together and it brings us closer as a team and program.”
The roster for Thunder Ridge features one senior, one junior, six sophomores, and two freshman. Senior Sidney Belliston and junior Avery Turnage will look to lead this young group of Titans through their inaugural campaign on the hardwood. Spencer said to watch for the development of sophomores Sierra John, Lauren Davenport, and Halli Smith over the course of the season.
“Lauren came from Hillcrest and was given time on varsity last year as a sophomore. She has the talent to be one of the best in the state this year. Sierra also came over from Hillcrest and is quick, smooth, and understands the game. Halli was at Bonneville last year and she is not afraid of anything. She has an attitude that picks girls up and she only knows how to play hard,” said Spencer.
The coach added that Turnage is their “six-foot quiet leader” who shows by example. He expects Turnage to have a great season.
“The sky is the limit for these girls. We, as coaches, have to put the girls in good situations and coach them up, especially being a first-year program.” Spencer added that he anticipates his team having the flexibility to play fast and furious or play slower with patience while exhibiting tough, in-your-face defense.
There will be a lot of youth on the floor at any given time for Thunder Ridge. Most would see that as a disadvantage. Not Spencer.
“We will get an opportunity to really work with our youth and build that foundation to set the tone for future Lady Titans,” he said. “Every girl in the program has such a great attitude and doesn’t know any better than to work hard and just get after it. That’s all we can ask for as coaches and they do such a great job. We will surprise teams this year because of our effort and attitude. We are under the radar and have all sorts of motivation to show teams that we will compete as a first year program.”