Darton freshman Shanea Armbrister, left, plays defense during a scrimmage game this season. Armbrister is one of four top recruits signed by Darton coach Lea Henry this season. (David Mann/Darton State College)
ALBANY — Darton women’s basketball coach Lea Henry took the Lady Cavs’ program to new heights last season with a trip to the NJCAA national tournament and a season-ending ranking of No. 11.
This year the Lady Cavs have the talent to soar even higher.
Darton lost Region XVII Player of the Year Michelle Mitchell, who was one of three Lady Cavs to sign Division I scholarships after last season’s remarkable run, but Henry reloaded with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.
Henry signed three Division I transfers and also inked Bahamas native Shanea Armbrister, who is ranked among the top 5 NJCAA freshmen in the country. Armbrister is joined on the Lady Cavs’ roster by former Lee County star and Alabama State transfer DaQuenna Moore, UNC Wilmington transfer B’Kyia Webb and Auburn transfer Cedricka Sweeting.
“With that type of class coming in, right away a lot is expected,” said Henry, whose team will start the season ranked 10th in the country. “We are excited about the season. Being ranked 10th is a compliment to our program, but at the same time it shows that there is a lot of expectations. But that’s where we want to be.”
Darton’s ranking is the highest in program history and comes just three seasons after Henry, a legendary former coach at Georgia State and Mercer, took over. Last year, the Lady Cavs won the Region XVII title for the first time in more than a decade, went undefeated at home and set a school record with 30 wins.
“Last year created a lot of excitement for our program,” Henry said. “By the end of the season our gym was full. It was a great atmosphere. We are hoping to get off to a good start and build on momentum we finished last year with.”
Starters Iesha Bonner and Kadayasha Jones are also back this fall, while returning point guard Jasmine Wilson will become eligible midway through the season at the beginning of next semester.
The starting lineup for today’s season opener against West Georgia Tech will be Bonner, Jones, Armbrister, Moore and Sweeting — but nobody carries more expectations this season than Armbrister, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard who was born in the Bahamas but played her final two seasons of high school at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she averaged 27 points and nine rebounds.
“When you talk about special players Shanea is right at the top of the list,” Henry said. “She is a special player that doesn’t come around very often.”
Albany Tech men
HEAD COACH: Sylvester Patterson (7th year at Albany Tech, 97-87 overall record)
KEY RETURNERS: Guy Barnes (So., 6-3), Lafonzo Smith (So., 6-9)
KEY NEWCOMERS: Loren Hall (So., 6-0), Kymon Woods (So., 6-4), Tevin Smith (Fr., 6-7), Brandon Hudson (Fr., 6-3)
X-FACTOR: Loren Hall. The West Georgia Tech transfer and star point guard is the motor for the Titans. He can handle the ball with ease and might be the best shooter on the team, making him a true combo guard. “How well he plays is how well the team is going to play,” Patterson said. “He gives us that point guard that we haven’t had in a couple of years.”
SEASON OPENER: 3 p.m. today vs. Faulkner State in the Alabama Southern Tournament
FROM THE COACH: “We want to get back to having a winning record,” Patterson said. “We had a winning record for four years in a row, but last year we were 10-20 and that was unexpected. I was disappointed, and I think all the guys were disappointed. They are used to winning. … This is a really athletic team, and we are going to be able to play up-tempo basketball which we couldn’t do last year because we were so big. We are getting back to Albany Tech basketball.”
Albany Tech women
HEAD COACH: Kenneth Williams (5th year at Albany Tech, 63-56 overall record)
KEY RETURNERS: Ashley Towns (So., 6-3), Toni Grier (So., 6-3)
KEY NEWCOMERS: Quiondra Darrisaw (Fr., 5-3), Tajai Pearson (So., 6-3), Tridedria Burke (Fr., 5-11), Jasmine Lavant (So., 5-10)
X-FACTORS: Quiondra Darrisaw and Jasmine Lavant. Darrisaw is just 5-foot-3, but the Dublin native has the ability to be a spark for the Lady Titans, while Lavant, a former Dougherty High star, gets up and down the court better than anybody on Albany Tech’s roster and can make a lot of things happen for the Lady Titans.
SEASON OPENER: 1 p.m. today vs. Faulkner State in the Alabama Southern Tournament
FROM THE COACH: “The biggest thing this year is staying healthy,” Williams said. ”We have more balance on our team this year. Last year we had (Lashay) Lettingham that pretty much did everything for us. This year we have more balance and probably have best guard combination in the years I have been here. If we can get the bigs to come around and play like they are capable of, we will be right there at the top of the conference.”
South Georgia Tech men
HEAD COACH: Steven Wright (8th year at SGTC, 137-85 overall record)
KEY RETURNERS: Anthony Ethridge (So., G/F), Dario Duque (So., G)
KEY NEWCOMERS: Femi Ojuolape (So, SG), Vantrail Commings (So., G/F), Trashaad Williams (Fr., PF/C)
X-FACTOR: Anthony Ethridge. The 6-foot-5 star from Lakeland is listed as one of the Top 100 JUCO players in the country and was the Region XVII Player of the Year last season after averaging 19 points and eight rebounds a game. They call him “Duke,” and he has already signed with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for his junior and senior seasons. He was nearly impossible to guard last year, and head coach Steven Wright believes Ethridge’s game has only strengthened in the offseason.
SEASON OPENER: 7 p.m. today at home vs. Action Sports Academy
FROM THE COACH: “This is the first time in 13 years of basketball at South Georgia Tech that we have gone undefeated in preseason scrimmages,” Wright said about the team’s 9-0 record in the preseason. “That includes beating (NAIA school) Brewton-Parker’s varsity last week. It seems like these kids have a winning mentality, and considering what I’ve seen and the talent we have my expectations are that we have a chance to win every game that we are in. The coaches voted us No. 2 in the preseason GCAA poll, and all of those coaches have gotten a chance to see us play. That says a little bit. Barring injuries I think we have a chance to be there at the end.”
South Georgia Tech women
HEAD COACH: James Frey (2nd year at SGTC, 20-12 overall record)
KEY RETURNERS: Nikkei Blackburn (So., PF), Rasheda Patterson (So., PF)
KEY NEWCOMERS: Shameekia Murray (So., SG), Alexia Somerset (So., PF), Shaquita Snow (So., PG)
X-FACTORS: Shameekia Murray and Nikkei Blackburn. Murray, a Chattahoochee Tech transfer, finished second in Region XVII in Player of the Year voting last season after averaging 17 points, six assists and six rebounds a game. Blackburn led South Georgia Tech in rebounding last season. Both sophomores have multiple Division I offers already and will be key to the Lady Jets’ success this season.
SEASON OPENER: 4 p.m. today vs. West Georgia Tech in Darton Classic.
FROM THE COACH: “We are coming off of my first year when we didn’t have much time to recruit and we still won 20 games,” Frey said. “A lot of people in our school and the administration thought it was a really good year. With the addition of some transfers we signed, we feel like we put ourselves in a position to make a run at a championship. … But with just a few players coming back, it’s going to depend on how quickly we learn to play together. It’s about how quickly these kids can jell and learn to play with each other.”