By Rubin E. Grant
Spain Park girls basketball coach Mike Chase doesn’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but he’s looking forward to coaching this season without Sarah Ashlee Barker on the court.
It’s not that he wouldn’t mind if the 2020 Alabama Miss Basketball was still around instead of being a freshman at Georgia, but he gets to coach like he has for most of his 25 years as a girls varsity head coach.
“Most teams I’ve coached didn’t have a dominant player like Sarah Ashlee,” Chase said. “Last year was more difficult for me to coach because everybody knew on offense she would have the ball in her hands. We were much easier to defend because they knew what was coming. I’ve had other teams that were more difficult to defend because things were more equally distributed.”
Even so, Barker leaves a huge void after leading the Jaguars to the 2020 Class 7A championship while averaging 23.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals as Spain Park finished with a 32-4 record.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had a player as good as Sarah Ashlee, but I’ve had players just as equally important, whether it’s scoring, leadership, rebounding, whatever,” Chase said. “So, I’ve lost good players before.
“We’ve got a lot of good players back this year who were their team’s leading scorer or rebounder in middle school. They knew Sarah Ashlee was a special player, so they took on a subordinate role and were willing to do whatever I needed them to do, whether that was playing defense, rebounding or knocking down an open three when Sarah Ashlee got them the ball.
“Now, it’s exciting to have them step up and fill roles. We can be a little more diverse in some of the things that we do because we’re not so dependent on one person.”
Plenty of Returning Talent
Chase likes the Jags’ returning nucleus with senior guard Avery Masdon, junior guards Mackenzie Culpepper and Camille Chase, the coach’s daughter, and sophomore forward Katie Flannery. Sophomore forwards Alanah Pooler and Haley Russell also return.
“We don’t have to fill what Sarah Ashlee did with one person, but if Katie, Camille and Mackenzie can score five or six more points a night, we divide up the rebounding and play good defense, we will be all right,” Chase said. “I am excited about our team.”
The Jags also have been bolstered by versatile 6-foot-2 sophomore Jordy Griggs, a transfer from California who is already receiving national attention.
“She’s been here since the start of the school year,” Chase said. “She’s from the Los Angeles area and is a phenomenal athlete with a lot of talent. She will play whatever we need. She can play all over the place. We’ve even had her run the point, but she’s still got to become a better decision-maker.”
The Jags have had some injury issues early on. Camille Chase hasn’t played in a game yet after continuing to recover from a torn ACL in her knee toward the end of last season. She is expected to return this week. Masdon has been dealing with a groin injury but is expected be back after Thanksgiving.
Also, Culpepper missed the first week of the season while running cross-country.
Spain Park has gotten off to a 4-1 heading into a busy five-game schedule this week, including playing in the BallN Prep Holiday Invitational Friday and Saturday in Huntsville.
The Jags will be playing in challenging Class 7A, Area 6, which includes Vestavia Hills, Hewitt-Trussville and Gadsden City, which joined the area after Mountain Brook moved down to Class 6A.
“Our area is the toughest 7A area in the state,” Chase said. “There are going to be two teams out of our area who will be eliminated (in the postseason) who probably could win a regional and go to the Final Four.”