By Rubin E. Grant
The Hoover girls basketball team had one goal coming into this season: reclaim the Class 7A championship.
But after four blowout wins to start the season, the Lady Bucs had to hit the pause button because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had several players and coaches test positive, so we went into quarantine,” Hoover coach Krystle Johnson said. “I tested negative.”
After routing Ramsay 63-45 on Nov. 19, Hoover was supposed to visit Hewitt-Trussville on Nov. 24 and then play in the BallNPrep Thanksgiving Bash at Hazel Green Nov. 27-28. But the Lady Bucs were forced to cancel those contests.
“It was basically just four players and me from the varsity,” Johnson said. “I could have pulled some girls up (from) the JV (junior varsity) and gone and played, but I didn’t want to do that. We just decided to take two weeks off. It’s really the only choice we had.”
The Lady Bucs were scheduled to resume practice Saturday and return to action at Wenonah on Tuesday, then host Vestavia Hills on Thursday at 6 p.m.
Johnson expects the Lady Bucs to be eager to get back on the court.
“For my team, ball is life,” she said. “They are the type of kids who are not hard to keep their focus. They love the game and they all want to play in college.
“During the quarantine, we were keeping in touch, texting and talking. They’ve been watching games and watching film. They’re very focused. It’s a good problem to have.”
Before the hiatus, Hoover was playing like a team possessed, motivated to erase the bitter taste in their mouths from a narrow 47-44 loss to crosstown rival Spain Park in the Class 7A championship game last season. The Lady Bucs finished with a 31-3 record. Two of the losses were to Spain Park, including one at the end of the regular season that snapped Hoover’s 23-game winning streak.
“Last year is definitely still on their minds,” Johnson said. “Some of my more experienced players are the most upset about the way the season ended. You can just tell they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder. All they talk about is getting back to the state championship game.”
Hoover won Class 7A titles in 2017 and 2019, defeating Spain Park in overtime in 2017 and Hewitt-Trussville in 2019.
The Lady Bucs have nine returning players in their quest to make it another odd year championship season.
Guard Jada Knight and 6-foot-2 forward Rachel Hager are the two seniors who returned.
“Jada has had a couple of rough games shooting, but she’s finding a way to contribute,” Johnson said. “Rachel is staying healthy and playing hard.”
Junior Aniya Hubbard is back, healthy after a late-season knee injury forced her to miss the championship game last winter.
“She twisted her ankle the weekend before we played our first game,” Johnson said, “but she has played in all four games and is leading us in scoring (13.3 points per game) and rebounding.”
Reniya Kelly, who has been on the varsity since the eighth grade, heads up a strong sophomore class that includes 6-foot-2 forward Kristen McMillian, 6-foot-2 center Olivia Johnigan, 6-foot forward Alicia Reyes and guard Lina Kouchis, a transfer from Huntsville.
Kelly led the team in scoring in their season-opening 77-19 victory over Huffman with 14 points and against Ramsay with 20 points. McMillan, who started a few games as a freshman, has scored in double figures in three of the team’s four games.
Johnigan played guard last season but grew four inches during the summer.
“She gives us a true center, but she’s still adjusting to playing in the post,” Johnson said.
Reyes played on junior varsity last season.
“She could have been on the varsity,” Johnson said. “She practiced with the varsity but played on the junior varsity.”
Hoover is the favorite to win Class 7A, Area 5, which includes Oak Mountain, Thompson and Tuscaloosa County. But the Lady Bucs’ focus is clearly on a state championship and being able to take care of business even if a key player goes down like Hubbard did at the end of last season.
“We were still a good team without her, but now they have the experience of that happening and they know they have to step up,” Johnson said. “It’s more realistic to them. They know they have to give their all every night.”