New Faces Lead Way for Lady Patriots

MADISON – As is the case each year, MRA girls basketball coach Stephen Force broke out the game uniforms, dusted them off, and passed them out to each of his players late last week in preparation for the upcoming season.

For the first time in a long time one of those didn’t go to Rivers Futral. No. 24 will still be worn this year, just not by Futral, who has been the star of the program for the past four years. A starter since her freshman year, Futral graduated as the leading scorer in the history of MRA basketball (boys and girls) with 2,195 career points. She was the Player of the Year a year ago, and was the MVP of the MAIS All-Star game.

Futral has since taken her talents to Mississippi College. Three other starters from last year’s 30-7 team are also gone, leaving behind one of the youngest, least experienced teams in Force’s 19-year tenure at MRA. The Lady Patriots’ 10-player roster is comprised of two seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and one freshman.

#LAF (Life after Futral) begins in earnest around 7:30 tonight as MRA tips off the 2020-’21 season against Starkville Academy in the annual Madison Madness Preseason Girls Classic inside the DuDome. Force is expected to start two sophomores, two juniors, and one senior. Only one starter, point guard Hunter Thompson, returns. And the lone senior starter, Laurel Fulcher, makes her return to the court after sitting out last year.

“It has definitely been a big adjustment,” Thompson said. “We know it’s going to be a little harder this year without Rivers. She was a really good player. Not only her, we also lost three other starters who were good players, too. So, it’s pretty much an entirely new team. But I still think we have a chance to have a good team. We’re all just going to have to step up a lot. We won’t have the experience we had last year, but we are going to be faster. I know Coach Force is excited about that.”

Force has 632 wins entering his 25th year as a head coach, 488 of those coming at MRA. The Lady Patriots won 30 games a year ago – many in blowout fashion – and went 9-1 in conference play during the regular season, earning the top seed in the Class 5A State Tournament. They lost to Jackson Prep in the championship game, then were ousted by Simpson in the opening round of the Overall Tournament.

Force sees no reason why those winning ways won’t continue this year, and he expects his team to once again be in the championship mix at year’s end despite the considerable roster turnover.

“We always expect to compete for the championship at the end of the year . . . what other expectations are there,” Force said. “This is one of the younger teams I’ve coached in a long time, but it is also one of the most athletic and potentially talented teams I’ve had in quiet some time.”

While Force has built his program in large part on hard-nosed half court man-to-man defense and toughness, last year’s team was much more offensive-minded. The Lady Patriots were able to put three, sometimes four players on the court capable of draining 3-pointers, and that resulted in them averaging 58 points per game. Futral averaged 21 points per game, while backcourt mate Mary Rogers Coon, also an All-Star, averaged 11.5. Holly Hendry, another 3-point shooter, averaged 5.1 points per game. Starting post Sarah Margaret Seabrook (7.5 ppg.) opted not to return this year, electing to concentrate full time on soccer instead.

That quartet for 45 points per game, meaning Force returns roughly only 13 points per game from a year ago. Futral, the only player in Force’s coaching career to average more than 20 points per game, averaged nearly half of that 45 points - often outscoring opposing teams by herself. She has been without question MRA’s go-to player the past four seasons, topping each opposition’s scouting report in bold letters. No longer.

“Rivers was a fantastic player in our league for the last four years,” Jackson Prep coach Michael McAnally said. “I always enjoyed watching her play but certainly will not miss preparing to stop her. She just had a way of making extraordinary plays seem rather effortless.”

While this year’s team doesn’t figure to be as good offensively after losing so much firepower, Force expects to be better defensively.

“I believe speed will be our strength once we learn how to utilize it on the defensive end of the floor,” he said.

That speed starts at the point guard position with Thompson, who was thrown into the fire a year ago as a sophomore. While not a big scorer – she averaged 2.6 points per game – she does a lot of things to help her team win. She excels in the open floor, she’s an excellent passer, and a good one-on-one defender.

“Hunter will add stability since she is the lone returning starter from last year,” Force said. “She will be given some more freedom to run the team on the floor.”

She will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Ella Wesley Davis, who played up on the varsity team a year ago as a freshman. She was the leading scorer on the junior high team which went 30-2 and won the district tournament. Her minutes increased on the varsity level once the junior high season ended, so she has a taste of playing on the high school level. Her strength is as a penetrator and getting to the free throw line.

Cattie Mann, the leading returning scorer from last year’s team at 4.5 points per game, joins Thompson and Davis in the backcourt. A junior, she’s the team’s top 3-point shooter.

Fulcher, a track standout, returns after sitting out last season. One of the best athletes at MRA male or female, she is expected to play at the 3 and 4 positions. Fulcher has a quick first step and will likely get numerous buckets in transition off of steals.

“I think Laurel will add some more speed to the team that we didn’t have last year,” Force said. “She is improving each day.”

Sophomore Riley Hancock is slated to start in the middle. She, like Davis, played an integral role in the success the junior high team had a year ago. At 5-11, she has a long wing-span, allowing her to be a good shot blocker. She’s also runs the floor extremely well, and she’s got good hands. Force believes Hancock has a very high ceiling, meaning she has a lot of potential.

“We really haven’t had a lot of time to settle into our roles as individuals yet, but it’s obvious early on that Riley has improved her game on the inside since last year,” Force said.

Sloane Vinson, who saw some playing time a year ago off the bench, is also expected to be a major contributor. A tough competitor who isn’t afraid to mix it up inside, she could start some at the 4-spot. She has been sidelined with an ankle injury as of late, and will likely not play tonight against Starkville Academy.

“I think Sloane has a much better understanding of the game as a whole since last year, and she will fill a much-needed void in the rebounding area for us,” Force said. “I believe our overall team leadership will fall on her and Hunter, as well as our other senior Peyton Young.”

Sophomore Cameron Humphries, a good shooter and rebounder, also projects to be in the main rotation. Freshman Grace Mansell and Young provide depth in the backcourt, while sophomore Ella Hendry fills the same role in the frontcourt.

“There are a lot of young players coming up who are going to be starting, so we’re going to have to help them out and show them how things are done,” Vinson said. “We all have to step up and be leaders on the team. We depended a lot on our offense last year, but I expect us to rely on our defense more this year.”