ALBANY -- It's difficult to measure just how many steps -- or how big of a step -- Monroe's girls basketball program took last year.
And not just because the Lady Tornadoes were flying up and down the court so fast. The real measuring stick came last month when the kids got together for the first workouts in the preseason.
"We're talking about going to the Final Four this year. That's one of our goals,'' said Monroe coach Cheryl Cheeks, whose team shocked a lot of basketball fans last year by upsetting Rutland, the seventh-ranked team in the state, then advancing to the GHSA Class AAA Sweet 16 in the state playoffs.
Monroe, which had won three games in 2008-09 and three games in 2007-08, had suddenly become a force in girls basketball.
"It was a huge step last year from where we started to where we finished,'' Cheeks said. "This year, the young ladies have made a commitment to get to the Final Four (or beyond). We're all on the same page.''
Monroe went 14-16 last year, but made a statement in the playoffs when it lost, 66-55, to LaGrange, which reached the state semis.
The Lady Tornadoes lost only one player, Lakeisha Jackson, who went to FAMU on a track scholarship, but return everyone else from a team that runs like the wind. And no one runs like the Lady Tornadoes, who have an unrelenting full-court presence. They forced more than 40 turnovers several times last year, created 26 turnovers in one quarter against Dougherty and even forced more than 60 against Perry last season.
"We're planning on running a little more this year than we did last year,'' Cheeks said. "That's our goal. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.''
Because Monroe's girls basketball program lacks the tradition the boys program has and the school's track programs have, Cheeks has had to develop players almost from scratch.
"I've seen a little more knowledge of the game this year, a little more basketball savvy, but nowhere near where it needs to be,'' Cheeks said. "The biggest thing is communication.''
Still, last year's success helps the growth process tremendously.
"It boosted our confidence a great deal,'' Cheeks said. ''And it helped our motivation going into this year, knowing we can compete with teams.''
Monroe opened the season last Friday night with a win against Albany, and the feeling with the team is different this time around.
"We're working harder,'' said Ashley Johnson, who averaged double figures last year and returns as one of only three seniors. "We came together last year, so this year we don't have to work on the chemistry, because we already have it.''
Four starters return, including junior Shaniqua Young, who has one of the best outside shots in the area. Young had the ability to get hot last year and make three or four 3s in a row and turn a game around.
"We're looking for an even better season from Shaniqua this year,'' Cheeks said.
Most of the points will still come off turnovers, and Monroe has track stars Davonw Anduze and Destinee Collins back at guard spots, and Jessica Burk, a senior, as a forward who can rebound and also face the basket. Cheeks said Burk has also emerged as one of the team's leaders this season along with Chelsea Cox. Jackson was the team leader a year ago.
Vanshayla Johnson, a senior who was out last year with a knee injury, and Narkisha Hilson, who was a valuable sixth girl on the team a year ago, are also expected to have an impact.
"We've improved a lot,'' Ashley Johnson said. "Now we just have to keep going.''