After a 19-9 finish last season but a first-round exit in the 5A State Tournament, the Benton Lady Panthers return a big veteran presence and big things are expected from longtime Coach Jerry Chumley. Taking third in the 5A Central Conference for the second consecutive season, Chumley is ready for his five seniors to lead the way to a league championship this year in new conference, the 5A South.
“Solid,” Chumley said of last season. “We finished third in back-to-back years in that Central conference. Although that’s nothing to be disappointed about, we just couldn’t get over the hump with some of those more athletic teams. We’ve addressed that in the weight room so we’re ready to go.”
One big returnee this year is senior post player Alyssa Houston. Houston earned All-State honors her sophomore and junior seasons after averaging a double-double – 16.1 points per game and 10.7 rebounds in 51 games the past two years. Houston is also part of the two-time defending Lady Panther softball team which has won 64 straight games, and recently committed to Division I Stanford to play softball.
“It’s really good to have her back,” Chumley said. “She’s healthy and we need to keep her that way.”
Houston is not the only Lady Panther with extended playing time the past two seasons returning. Seniors Madison McIntyre and Presley Chism, along with senior Addison Davis and Zayyah Bufford will lead this Lady Panther squad.
“We expect that to carry us,” Chumley said of the senior leadership. “In theory I shouldn’t have to coach a whole lot. They know what we do, they know what our philosophy is front, backward and upside down. They know what our standards are and I expect those five seniors to carry us all year long.”
But, one key cog is missing from last year’s squad. A sophomore last season, Wesleigh Ferguson, averaging 11.9 points per game last year and only second to Houston, was invited to play with IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. IMG is an academy to prep ball players for Division I colleges.
“From what I understand, they basically offered her two free years to come train and play down there,” Chumley said. “Tough decision but they took it so we have a big hole to fill. We’re hoping the best for her.”
Chumley expects his seniors, as well as some underclassmen, to come together and fill Ferguson’s void.
After averaging 7.9 points her sophomore year, Chism averaged 10.8 last season and has found more ways to score.
“We know Presley Chism can really shoot the 3-ball,” Chumley said. “She’s figured out other ways to score besides the 3-ball. And then Zayyah Bufford (3.5 PPG) out there running the show. We’ve pretty much given her the keys to the offense, get it started and get it going. She’s scoring better than last year.”
McIntyre is always on the defensive, but saw her scoring average drop by almost two points from her sophomore season from 7.4 to 5.7, but Chumley says she’s back on the offensive.
“Madison McIntyre has really upped her offensive game,” he said. “We know the defensive side of her game is pretty good. This offseason she’s really worked and got more confidence scoring the basketball.
“She’s done that. Wesleigh was a double-figure scorer for us. Madison’s numbers were better her sophomore year than her junior year. Somewhere along the way she lost her confidence, but she’s got that back now. She’s at a high level at both ends of the floor now. She’s going to help tremendously fill that void.”
Providing a spark off the bench last season was Davis, who was also a starter for the softball team.
“One of our smaller players but has a big heart,” Chumley said Davis. “Knows what to do, she’ll take charges, knock down some open shots and really doing a good job taking care of the basketball for us. We’ve got a solid five. I don’t know if they’ll all five start every game, but they’re all starter-type players and we’re going to rely heavily on every one of them.”
While the seniors will see a ton of time on the court, Chumley mentioned juniors Hannah Cantrell, Ashley Wallace, Brynn Barbaree and Presley Pallette, who had the match-ending kill to give the Lady Panthers the 5A state volleyball championship last Saturday. Sophomores McCartney Asher, 6-2 post Parker Stearns and transfer from Cabot Lorelei Davis should also see some time.
“It’s looking like we’re going to have some depth with these kids,” Chumley said. “They’re all working hard and they’ve got great leadership in front of them. We could have a really, really good year if everybody can stay healthy, play their role. I like our depth and improvement in key areas.”
The offense should be improved this season but the defense has always been a staple for Chumley’s teams, even though he didn’t play much of it when he was on the court back in the day.
“We stress it,” the Coach said of defense. “My buddies make fun of me all the time that I never did play defense when I was playing ball. I tell them that’s true, but I understand the importance of it.
“We’re going to guard, we’re going to hold teams down. I think that takes pressure off our offense. We’re not going to have a kid on the floor that won’t guard. We’re going to take charges.”
While Chumley believes his Lady Panthers should take the South, it won’t be easy.
“El Dorado, for sure,” he said of a top competitor. “They’ve got everybody back. Very athletic, play really fast, deep. Lake Hamilton lost a few kids, but they’re never bad. Sheridan has one or two really good players. It seems like every team has at least one really good player. Lakeside’s point guard may be the best player in the league.
“We think we’re the favorite. If we play well, we’ve got a shot of winning that league. Everybody is going to have to play hard because there’s really no weak team in the league.”
But, it will depend on the seniors, according to Chumley. The Lady Panthers go as far as they will lead them.
“We’ve had some solid years back to back and these seniors now are hungry,” he said. “They came in on a championship. These seniors are the ones to win the ninth-grade title three years ago, the first district tournament championship they’ve won in 25, 30 years. They’re really hungry to go out on one. We’ve talked a lot about that in the summer and fall and they’ve worked really hard. They’re ready.”
The Lady Panthers and Panthers will host Greenbrier in a benefit game Tuesday at Benton Arena before the Lady Panthers officially starting the season vs. Searcy on Nov. 15.