News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Six of the top area senior basketball players are ready for action this season. Clockwise, from upper left, are Jessy Willingham of Addison, Juarez Fitzgerald of Speake, Zane Campbell of West Limestone, Jazmine Powers of Austin, Myles King of Lawrence County and Jasmine Patton of Hazlewood.
Daily illustration by Laura Taylor
Six of the top area senior basketball players are ready for action this season. Clockwise, from upper left, are Jessy Willingham of Addison, Juarez Fitzgerald of Speake, Zane Campbell of West Limestone, Jazmine Powers of Austin, Myles King of Lawrence County and Jasmine Patton of Hazlewood.

Super seniors
Coaches looking for big seasons from their stars

By Brooke Milam 340-2460

Several area basketball coaches are not really looking forward to Graduation Day 2008.

It's a day when many of them will say goodbye to players that have won a lot of games on the court, and in many cases won them off the court as well.

That's the case with Austin High girls coach Bruce Hamilton, whose senior point guard Jazmine Powers signed a scholarship Wednesday to play for Samford University in Birmingham.

Hamilton has one more year to enjoy Powers, who is a three-year starter and a player that Hamilton has seen develop into one of the area's best since he became head coach in 2005.

"With Jaz, she's really matured a lot and she's doing things better now even than she did last year, and we can really rely on her as a leader," Hamilton said.

"She does a lot of things that coaches like to see, and she does it with a smile. She has a great personality. You can't help but root for her."

Also part of the Class of 2008, Hazlewood's Jasmine Patton and Addison's
Jessy Willingham are multi-sport stars whom area sports fans have known for years.

Noteworthy seniors on the boys side include Lawrence County's Myles King, West Limestone's Zane Campbell and Speake's Juarez Fitzgerald.

All six were Daily all-area selections last season as juniors, and as their senior seasons tip off, coaches said you can expect even more out of these standouts.

The boys

West Limestone coach Justin Taylor said the Class 3A Wildcats will enjoy their first year in a long time with an experienced senior class.

At the top of the list is Campbell, a three-year starter, who was an all-state honorable mention selection last year and has built a reputation as one of the best swing-men in North Alabama.

The 6-foot-7 Campbell averaged 19.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game last year, using his height to play a variety of positions.

"He really understands the game," Taylor said. "He's a savvy player. He's not just good because he's 6-7."

Campbell is big enough to play inside but also sharp on the perimeter, and Taylor said Campbell will again play "a lot of guard and wing just like last season."

"His role is not going to change a lot because he was the one last year," Taylor said.

"We had to put him in the position last season as the go-to guy, so he's really been there before."

Campbell and the Wildcats will get a good test early, facing Lawrence County on Friday in the season opener for both teams.

Lawrence County's senior class includes a wealth of experience, led by King, a speedy 6-2 guard who has led the Red Devils in scoring for three seasons. King has upped his point totals from 19 a game as a freshman to 20 as a sophomore and 21 last year as a junior despite drawing double- and sometimes triple-team coverage.

"His role is very huge," Lawrence County coach Stanley Johnson said.

King headlines a strong senior group along with Durman Cunningham, Matthew Pugh and Taylor McCulloch, helping set the tone as they embrace the urgency of their final season after making it to the Northwest Regional finals last year in 4A.

King's goal is to play for The University of Alabama, but Johnson said several smaller schools have shown interest, and his star player knows he will have to work harder as a senior to make his dream a reality.

"Definitely, I've already seen it," Johnson said.

"Myles has increased his range. He used to be a one-threat offense, driving to the goal, but now he's worked on all aspects of his game, and I think he's going to turn some more heads. He's so versatile I can play him at any position on the floor."

Speake coach Brad Hembree said he has counted just as heavily on Fitzgerald, a four-year starter at point guard for the 1A Bobcats.

The 5-foot-8 Fitzgerald averaged 14 points a game, 3.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season, helping pace the Bobcats to the Northwest Regional and a 22-7 finish for the best record in school history.

"His talent and skill level are obvious to anyone who watches him play," Hembree said.

"As a younger player he was developing and just basically had to worry about learning our system and playing a position. Now he has assumed a much bigger role in being our team leader."

Hembree said he appreciates Fitzgerald's leadership skills as much as his athleticism which helped Speake battle through back-to-back 10-win seasons before last year's breakout year.

"His leadership skills off the court are also second to none," Hembree said. "His teammates respect him, and I look at him as a coach on the floor, which makes my job easier and more enjoyable."

The girls

Playing in the North-South all-star game was just one of the many highlights of a productive summer for Powers, a 5-foot-5 guard who Hamilton said "make herself by playing in the summer."

Hamilton said one of Powers' main strengths is that "she's just so quick," and it has been a great asset for 6A Austin, paired with a brilliant work ethic that had her traveling all over the country this summer with the Alabama Twisters AAU team. As a junior for Austin last season, Powers averaged 10 points a game with 2.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds per contest and a total of 35 steals.

"She works on her game and tries to please, and as good as she was, she's even gotten better and improved," Hamilton said.

Like Powers, Addison's Willingham has been an important part of her team since she was a freshman.

"As she's gotten older, she's become a better all-around player," Addison coach Scott Curd said. "She understands the game and that it's not about her; it's about the team. She'll be the first to tell you she can't do it without her teammates."

Willingham and fellow seniors Britney Taylor and Kayla Carden have formed the nucleus of the Lady Bulldogs since their freshman seasons.

Without assistant coaches, Curd said, the three have helped as teachers for younger players as much as their on-the-court contributions.

Willingham's 21.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game led the Lady Bulldogs. She also contributed 2.2 assists and 2.2 steals per contest.

"She's strong," Curd said.

"I've seen games that girls try to post her up and move her, and they can't. And she can knock down the open jumper and rebound in traffic as well."

Curd said it is difficult to explain exceptional talent, and other coaches agree, but he also said he knows Willingham's is a type of skill that does not come along often.

"You look at kids, and some are just able to compete," Curd said.

"Getting out there at practice and stuff you can just see it. You can't really put it into words. She's a tremendous athlete and a tremendous competitor."

In a program with a strong tradition, Hazlewood's Patton stands out from a slew of great competitors. She is a five-year starter who has helped the Lady Golden Bears to three consecutive 1A state runner-up finishes.

"She's super athletic, has tremendous heart and is a perfectionist by nature," Hazlewood coach Darin Liles said.

The 5-foot-8 Patton is a trademark defender, but Liles said she has made strides offensively that could help the Lady Golden Bears just as much.

"She can be more of a scorer this season," Liles said.

Last year, Patton averaged a double-double, posting 16 points and team-high 10 rebounds a game, along with four assists and five steals per contest. Patton was named second-team all-state as a junior and picked to the all-state tournament team.

Liles conveyed the thoughts of every coach as their players embark on their last year as high school basketball players, saying he is looking for Patton's senior season to be her best.

"Jasmine is a winner and has matured to the point that not every little thing bothers her," Liles said. "When she is focused, she's as good a player as there is around. We are hoping her senior year is her best."

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