NORMAN — After a run to the state tournament a year ago, expectations are high for the Norman North girls. The Timberwolves are ranked fourth in the state and return everyone from a year ago. Tonight’s opening-night game is a showdown with ninth-ranked Edmond Memorial, a team that emerged as a bitter rival to North a season ago as the two teams met four times.
But the injury bug has taken some luster off the matchup. Seniors Bri Kuestersteffen and Julian Mougell have both missed time in the last month with concussions, while junior Paige Canty sprained her ankle and sophomore Alexa Scott is battling illness. Mougell and Canty are both considered gametime decisions for tonight’s 6:15 p.m. opener.
While it may not be an ideal start for the Timberwolves, there have been some benefits, namely increased playing time for the rest of the roster. Coach Jeff Blough said that one of the Timberwolves’ weaknesses a year ago was a tendency to stand around too much while Kuestersteffen and junior Haley Woodard would shoot the ball and penetrate the lane. With her out of the lineup, the rest of the team was forced to become more active, a development that Blough expects will pay off down the road.
“It’s helped us in that sense,” he said. “At times we’ve been able to go small with Haley playing the five. It’s really helped some of the other girls like Aspen Knight and Sarah Tomlinson to step up and become more comfortable.”
Tigers’ strength lies in chemistry: Coach Matt Thornton is entering his second year at the helm at Norman High, and he’s looking forward to having something that he said is rare in teams.
“This team has really good chemistry, and there’s no jealousy,” he said. “That’s not always something you get. I think kids are buying in and understand what we’re trying to teach. They play really well together.”
Thornton said that the team isn’t dominated by one or two players, and instead works best as a cohesive unit. But there is one go-to player in junior Cooper Clark, something that Thornton said is good to have.
“Last year we had several players who wanted to be that player, and that was sometimes one of our problems,” he said. “This year everyone knows it’s Cooper, and he’s done a great job with that. He’s one of those kids who can do a lot of things, and he’s a good fit for the group he has around him. This team has been a pleasure to coach so far, and I’m excited to start the season and see how they do against other people. I think they have a chance to be really good and surprise some people.”
NHS girls going young: While the NHS girls have a pair of experienced senior leaders in Taylor Ely and Chandler Coale, the Tigers are also filling out the roster with an array of young talent.
Five freshmen - Shelby Thrailkill, Jandra Levi, Brennan Hockett, Dari Hunter, and Bethany Franks - are on the roster and expected to contribute. Having so many freshmen on the court at one time can be frustrating, but coach Nichole Copeland said it’s refreshing at the same time.
“This group is used to winning and brings a youthful joy to the game,” she said. “As frustrated as you can be one minute you can be laughing the next. It’s a group used to winning and eager to learn. When you pair them with Taylor’s focus and Chandler’s tenacity, it’s going to be a good group.”
Mitchell ahead of schedule: Heading into tonight’s 6:15 p.m. home opener against Westmoore, the Tigers have their own injury concerns.
While freshman Bethany Franks, who is expected to see significant time if she’s cleared to play tonight, will be back in the lineup fairly quickly, junior Erica Mitchell is still several weeks away. Mitchell, a post player who provides the Tigers with energy and rebounding inside, is recovering from a torn ACL and is ahead of schedule in her rehab.
Mitchell could return before Christmas - possibly in Dec. 20’s Crosstown Clash - or for the Bartlesville Tournament that begins on Dec. 26.
“I’ve never seen anybody attack rehab the way that she has,” Copeland said. “We’re excited to get her back. She’s going to make us a much better team.”
Preseason rankings released: The Norman North girls lead the way in the first edition of the rankings. The Timberwolves are ranked No. 4 after a run to the state tournament a year ago. One spot behind them is Southmoore. Washington enters the season ranked No. 7 in Class 3A.
T-Wolves plan “lime-out”: Norman North officials are planning a “lime-out” event for the teams’ home opener against Edmond Memorial tonight. Fans are asked to wear lime-colored shirts for the showdown against the Bulldogs, which brings teams ranked in the preaseason top 10.
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