Lea Henry enters her second season as Darton's head coach as the Lady Cavs open today at home against West Georgia Tech.
ALBANY — Lea Henry got the call at the end of July — the call that took away her star point guard and left her with a huge hole in the starting lineup.
Losing Lauren Johnson to Division I Hampton University (Va.) just months before the start of the regular season hurt the Lady Cavs and took away the heart of their defense.
But it didn’t take away their fight.
And Henry, who is entering her second year as head coach of the Darton State College women’s basketball team, thinks her girls have enough pieces and role players to fight through that loss, starting with today’s season opener at 2 p.m. at home against West Georgia Tech.
It’s also the first year Henry, the Damascus native who spent 16 seasons at Georgia State before coming back home to Albany to coach at Darton last summer, has an entire roster full of players she has recruited.
“There is a consistency in the type of player we have,” Henry said. “I think that’s important with a team that you aren’t trying to mold a bunch of different personalities into one group. You start out in the beginning with classy, hard-working kids that are talented.”
And no one is more talented than sophomore Michelle Mitchell, who is one of just three returners from last year’s team that finished 20-8 after losing to Georgia Perimeter in the Region XVII semifinals.
Mitchell, who was an honorable mention All-American last season, averaged 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. The 5-foot-9 guard from Eastman shot 49 percent from the field and finished the season with 448 points.
And she’s only gotten better.
“She already has improved,” Henry said. “All summer long she got in the gym and worked on her outside shot. She was a little hesitant last year to shoot the outside shot. She learned to pull up and shoot the jump shot last year, and now she has range on a set shot.”
Mitchell, Chanteniece Fann and Crystal Reed are the only returners on a team with nine freshmen, but Mitchell thinks the talent is there.
“We have a young team this year, but we are going to be pretty good. My role this year is more of everybody looking up to me for everything to get started and doing the right thing,” Mitchell said. “I think we can be pretty good. Because we work hard at practice and are still learning. At the end, we will put it all together and make it work.”
Mitchell is joined in the starting lineup by returning starter Fann (Warner Robins), point guard Jasmine Wilson (Warner Robins), wing Kadayasha Jones (Eastman) and post Iesha Bonner (Columbus).
Wilson is given the duty of replacing Johnson, who averaged two steals and 4.4 assists per game.
“She is a good player, very talented,” Henry said about the 5-9 freshman. “She is big, and she can shoot. From a talent standpoint, she is a little bit better player than Lauren, but from a mentality standpoint Lauren was just such a tenacious player.”
Johnson will be almost impossible to replace.
“She set the tempo,” Henry said. “When you talk about Laura, Michelle and Chan on the court together, you don’t have a choice but to play hard. Laura was such a hard worker and defended so well. We’ve gone from having that mentality at the point guard position to really having to work with young players at that position.”
Now the Lady Cavs’ hard-nosed trio is down to two.
“We all just have to play as one,” Mitchell said. “I will do my part. It’s a lot of work, but I can get it done.”
Darton’s third returner, 6-6 center Crystal Reed, saw limited time last season, but Henry said the Monticello, Ark., native could see an increased role this year.
“She has improved a lot,” Henry said about Reed. “But we are just so athletic, that’s the thing. There are times where there are good opportunities to play Crystal, and there are times when it’s a tough time to play her, like if we are pressing or if the tempo of the game is non-stop.”
Three Southwest Georgia natives were on last year’s Darton roster — Dougherty grad LeKandra Beeks, Mitchell County’s Twyla White and Seminole County’s Georgette Benton — but the Lady Cavs are without any local talent this year.
And it’s not because Henry wasn’t looking for Albany-area stars.
“The kid we really wanted (Lee County star DeQuenna Moore) qualified for Division I and went to Alabama State. I really wanted her to come here,” Henry said. “We are just trying to find the best kids for the program in the Southeast. It’s a plus if it’s a local kid.”