The Sumter girls basketball team entered the season with lofty expectations.
Coming off an appearance in the state championship game last spring, the Gamecocks started this year as the top-ranked 5A team. While that recognition from the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association was nice, head coach Jeff Schaffer needed to make sure his team didn't buy too heavily into the hype.
"We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season," Schaffer said. "It's hard. They see it, people are telling them that they're No. 1 in the state but, we tell them to keep grounded.
"Every day in practice I fuss at them pretty hard, and they know I'll be the first one to pick them up off the floor when something happens, but they have to understand that just because somebody says it doesn't mean it's going to come to fruition. You have to go out on the basketball court and prove it every night."
He didn't want them to rest on their laurels. Schaffer wanted to frontload the schedule, so he got into big tournaments as soon as possible. As a result, Sumter played three ranked teams before Christmas.
"It's baptism by fire in some extent with these younger kids," Schaffer said. "It gave us time to check some of these younger kids that are newer to the program, see what they're capable of doing. We played some pretty good competition, and it got our feet wet. We kind of understood where we're at and what we need to work on."
One of the biggest tests Sumter faced early was Keenan, the top-ranked 3A team. Sumter lost that Nov. 27 matchup 79-44.
Schaffer wanted the game to be a wakeup call.
"I think they're one of the best teams in the state, regardless of classification, and we had a little bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to us," Schaffer said. "I think some of that had to do with the fact that (South Carolina head coach) Dawn (Staley) was in the crowd, and she was recruiting Milaysia (Fulwiley) over there. I think our kids were a little shell-shocked."
Schaffer said those are the games the Lady Gamecocks need to win if they want to take the next step as a program. While Sumter is a perennial contender, Schaffer wants to see his program be a team that no one wants to see in the playoffs.
"We're not quite there yet, but we're getting there," Schaffer said. "I think with this younger crowd, especially in the sophomore class, maybe by the time they're seniors we'll develop that legacy to compete with the Dormans and the Dutch Forks and the Goose Creeks of the world."
That sophomore class is Sumter's driving force this season. Kiara Croskey leads the charge, playing her fourth season of varsity basketball despite it being only her second year in high school. Along with fellow sophomores Rickell Brown and Keziyah Sanders, Sumter forms one of the most dynamic frontcourts in South Carolina.
"We're only going to go as far as those three can push us, and so far they've been doing a really good job of that," Schaffer said.
As she did last season, Croskey drives the ship. She's often the most talented player on the court, but Schaffer wants to see her become a more dominant star.
"Ki is a great kid. Her personality, she's kind of a laid back individual, and I'm trying to coach her up on being able to flip that switch," Schaffer said. "It's OK to be laid back, but when the game is on the line, at some point you have to flip the switch and become that A player instead of that B personality. She's learning that. She's only a sophomore, so as she gets older, she's going to acquire those traits."
Brown came into the season with the least experience of the trio, but she has blossomed in a larger role this season.
Schaffer appreciates her court vision as a young player.
"She sees the court extremely well, and sometimes she makes passes that I'm shocked she sees where to throw the basketball at a particular time," Schaffer said. "It's not always the correct way to get the ball there, but she's at least seeing where the ball should go.
"She's probably one of the most athletic kids that I've got ... and she's a big competitor. She loves to play the game."
Then there's Sanders, who has seen her role increase throughout her freshman season. Last year, she had the benefit of being the player opponents hadn't seen on film. Now teams know she can't be left alone.
"This year, unfortunately, people have seen film on her, so she's having a little harder time getting her shots off because they are keying on her a little bit, and because of her size they go after her pretty hard," Schaffer said. "They trap her and they get her in spots she can't get as a smaller guard. She's made great strides in staying out of the corner and getting to the middle of the court."
Even if Sanders doesn't always have the highest point total, her impact is seen in the way teams defend Sumter.
"People see that they have to guard her, too, when she's on the perimeter, but it's a three-headed snake," Schaffer said. "If you guard her, you leave the other two open. If you guard the other two, you leave her open. It's a nice problem to have."
Schaffer said the thing that will take that group to the next level is on the defensive side of the ball. When they're locked in on defense, Sumter is unstoppable.
"It's a challenge every day to stress to them that 80% of the time you're not touching the basketball, so what are you doing with that 80%?" Schaffer said.
The Gamecocks have always liked to work the ball inside-out under Schaffer, and that hasn't changed, even if the Lady Gamecocks are a little more guard-heavy than they have been. Alicia Spann brings some good experience at center, as she played a reserve role on last year's state runner up team.
Paired with Shamira Andrews, who plays a mix of guard and forward, Sumter has some skill down low, it's just an area that needs more development.
"We tell the kids to work on the inside game, then let the outside game take place. We want to get those post players involved," Schaffer said. "Alicia, just because of her size and her strength, she poses a problem in the paint. She still needs to be faster with her lateral quickness to get inside on some of these people and block out a little bit better. If she wanted to do that and get her body in the correct position to go up, she's going to out-rebound almost everyone else on the floor because her wingspan is up there."
Sumter enters region play, which began with a trip to Socastee Friday night, as the favorite to win the conference. That doesn't mean it will be a cake walk.
Even as Sumter earned a championship game berth last year, the Lady Gamecocks lost two region games. Carolina Forest should be a threat, as they enter region play 8-4.
Schaffer noted that every team in the region provides a different challenge.
"Socastee has a post player that's a big presence in the paint. I think she's at least 6'4". Then when you go to play Carolina Forest, they're a little more guard oriented," Schaffer said. "We're going to have different challenges with each of those groups."
The Lady Gamecocks want to win the region, but their goals are much larger in the grand scheme of things.
Schaffer wants to follow the blueprint of the team that beat them in last year's championship game. Clover narrowly lost the championship in 2020 before coming back to beat Sumter last year. Schaffer hopes the experience the Lady Gamecocks earned last year takes them over the top.
"We have to be that team with the chip on our shoulder. Yeah, we probably should've won a state championship last year, but last year's over. You have to forget about it," Schaffer said. "My approach has always been the windshield on a car is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason. What's out in front of you has to be your focus."
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