NEW MADRID -- Now in his third season as the head coach at New Madrid County Central High School, Lance Tollison is ready for his Lady Eagles to turn the corner this season after an improved 2005-06 campaign.
With second-team all-region forward Heavenly Wren, guard Micah Nesselrodt and a group of talented underclassmen, Tollison thinks his team should improve on last season's 13-14 record.
"Winning 13 games last season was a big step for us -- that's the first time we've won that many games since the 1999-2000 year," said Tollison. "We've had some down years here. We've gradually made headway each year. If we won 13 last year we should have a goal to win more this year."
The Lady Eagles are already off to a good start as they opened the season with a 73-67 victory at Senath-Hornersville on Tuesday.
"This year I feel we have more depth than we've had in the past," said Tollison. "That was really the key to our first win, our depth against Senath -- I played 10 or 12 girls several minutes. That will be a benefit for us this season. Against Senath I pressed the whole game and I've never been able to do that in the past because of our depth. I was able to use that to our advantage, and when it came to crunch time my starters were fresh."
Wren will be NMCC's go-to player. She scored 18 in the first game, something Tollison will come to expect from the 5-foot-8 senior.
"I'm expecting 15 to 18 points a ballgame and she's capable of doing that every night against anybody," said Tollison. "She's a good post player and she's strong as an ox. She's going to get her 15 to 18 points and nine to 10 rebounds every night."
Nesselrodt, a 5-5 senior, played shooting guard most of last season but will fill in at point guard until Jasmine Beasley returns, possibly after Christmas, after taking a leave from the team for personal reasons.
"Micah has run the point for us in the past," said Tollison. "Last year she was more of a shooting guard, but she's very capable of playing point guard. The ball-handling duties won't be all on Micah, but she'll do most of it early on. I think our leadership, with Heavenly and Micah mixed in with our youth, is a good combination."
Tollison has two freshmen in the starting lineup in 5-11 Jasmine Flennoy and 5-7 guard Shameka Williams.
Williams had a breakout game right out of the gates against Senath-
Hornersville, scoring 25 points, including 11 in the game's final two minutes to help the Lady Eagles rally for the victory.
"Shameka really had a big game for her first varsity game, so if I get production like that out of her that'd be great," said Tollison.
Alongside Wren, Flennoy could flourish in the post.
"If Jasmine and Shameka just get a few games under their belts they will be seasoned players and will have some good experience," said Tollison. "Jasmine can learn a lot from Heavenly."
Tollison's depth is solid with Sonni Carlisle, Whitney Tanner and Paige Jimmerson moving up from the junior varsity. In addition to starters Wren and Nesselrodt, he also has a mix of senior leaders in Takisha Smoot, Andrea Williamson and Delisal Cole.
Junior Janavia Johnson and sophomore Chiquilla Kimble are a pair of young guards that can provide ball-handling duties for the Lady Eagles.
NMCC will once again compete in Class 3, District 1, but a few new faces are in the district. Moving in is Kelly, Charleston, Scott City and East Prairie, but moving out is district dominator Doniphan, which gives Tollison reason to believe his team can contend for a district title this season.
"Doniphan was moved out, so it's kind of wide open and we hope to make some noise this year," said Tollison. "Now with Doniphan out of the district, winning a district is a little more attainable. I'm not saying it's going to be easy because there are still some tough teams, but Doniphan is usually a step above the rest."
Perimeter shooting could be a problem-area for the Lady Eagles, but Tollison hopes to offset that weakness with a solid post game, good defense and a frantic, up-tempo pace.
"My game's going to be inside and we're going to live and breathe by running the floor and that's what we did the other night," said Tollison. "Fresh out of the blocks we put up 73 points. I want to get up and down the floor. We're extremely athletic and fast and we have the depth. If somebody forces us to shoot from the outside we'll have some issues. But the Williams girl hit a big 3-pointer in that first game that broke Senath's back and Micah's my best pure shooter. I'd set up a play any day for her to shoot outside."
The Lady Eagles have a difficult slate leading up to Christmas with conference foes Notre Dame, Dexter and Doniphan looming in the next three weeks.
NMCC will then collide with Class 5 powers Jackson and Poplar Bluff in early January. Tollison just hopes to make it through gauntlet with his team's head above water.
"We play in a tough conference, the SEMO Conference large schools are tough to close the gap on, but at the same time if we win the games we're supposed to win then we should be right where we were last year and compete for a district title," said Tollison.
NMCC will be back in action on Tuesday at the Lady Bulldog Classic in Gideon. The Lady Eagles are seeded second and will play No. 7 Malden at 4 p.m.