History has been made by the John Milledge Academy girls basketball program these last couple years, and it’s a trend the team hopes to see continue in the 2020-21 campaign.
The Lady Trojans under head coach Tasha Gainous made a Final Four appearance a season ago after a region runner-up finish. Two years back the program got its first region title in a quarter of a century. Gainous’ girls seem to have all the pieces one would want in order to keep that progression toward a state championship berth going despite losing their leader and 2020 All-County Girls Player of the Year Sutton Eady to graduation.
“I think that we’ll end up being just as good, if not better than last year,” Gainous said. “We’ll miss Sutton of course with everything she brought, which wasn’t just her scoring. I have five seniors, so we don’t have that one leader. That’s definitely been different, but all of those seniors are experienced.”
Heading up that senior talent pool are Olivia Rhodes and Brayden Latimer who helped Lady Trojan softball reach the state finals in October for a second consecutive season. Rhodes is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 11 points per game last year from her position at guard. She has been spearheading the JMA girls’ scoring efforts through four games in this young 2020-21 season, putting up double digits each night. Down in the post, the lengthy Latimer nearly averaged a double-double as a junior with nine points and nine rebounds a night.
Joining the duo as returning key contributors are freshman point guard Maggie Prestwood, who handled her duties deftly last year despite starting as just an eighth-grader, and senior Cadence Bandows. Both have shown the ability to be accurate from beyond the arc, which will help stretch opposing defenses and open the lane up for attack.
Gainous pointed out that this is one of her deepest teams she’s had in terms of girls who can give her quality minutes. While that’s definitely a positive, it does take time to build chemistry between the different players. The head coach has been experimenting with lineups at practices and during games in an effort to do just that.
“We’re finding our identity right now. It’s the beginning of the season, so the girls are still figuring one another out,” said Gainous. “I think that’s normal for everybody this time of year. I know we’re going to have to play a lot better than we have. The girls are hard workers, so we’ll definitely figure it out.”
The JMA girls are 3-1 through four games this season with wins against Gatewood, Augusta Prep and Thomas Jefferson Academy. The loss came in a 39-36 result against AA Brentwood, but the Lady Trojans will have the opportunity to get revenge for that loss on their home floor Thursday. Some other good barometer-type competition is coming up at a holiday tournament next week with Southland Academy and Brookwood, the team that knocked JMA out in the Final Four last year, expected to pose a challenge.
Region play begins Jan. 12 against longtime region foe Westminster. Bethlehem Christian Academy returns as a region opponent while Westfield and Young Americans Christian are newcomers. Based on early results, Westfield of Perry is expected to be in the hunt for the region title along with the JMA girls.
John Milledge once again gets to host the Region 4-AAA tournament in February since it is a good middle ground for the spread-out schools. The tournament carries a little different weight this year though with the GISA’s move to a power ranking system administered by MaxPreps. Previously region finishes were used to determine playoff seeding, but that will now be done by the power rankings. Though they mean little at this point in the season, the Lady Trojans stood at fifth in the latest ranking Tuesday behind Westfield, Southland, Bulloch and Westminster. The system is not a poll as it takes no human votes into account. According to MaxPreps, it utilizes game results stored in the website’s database with more weight being placed on wins against highly-rated opponents. Simply put, winning helps while losing hurts. Winning against good teams helps more while losing to good teams hurts less.
JMA girls basketball was slated to host Gatewood Wednesday, but the game was canceled due to COVID on Gatewood's part. The Lady Trojans will try again Thursday to play their first home game when Brentwood comes to town for a 6 p.m. tipoff. Thursday will serve as JMA basketball's Senior Night.