Despite down year, LHS girls showed plenty of promise during 2019-20 campaign

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence High's Ozi Ajekwu gets past Free State defenders Caely Kesten (13) and Mackenzie Moore for a bucket during the first half on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Lawrence High School girls basketball team may have gone 5-16 over the past season, but that record doesn’t worry coach Jeff Dickson very much.

In fact, the Lions’ head coach said the team’s struggles this year could lay the groundwork for more success in the years to come.

“We never win as many games as we want to, because we want to win them all,” Dickson said. “But wins and losses is about seventh on our list on how we evaluate a season. We wanted the team to come together and learn the value of hard work and what that means.”

Given the success of Lawrence High’s program in recent years, Dickson entered the season with high expectations, even though several important players from the 2018-19 squad had graduated. Before the 2019-20 season, LHS had strung together four consecutive double-digit-win seasons.

But the Lions played a daunting schedule this past season, starting with Topeka High (No. 1 in Class 6A all year) in the season opener. They then went 1-11 in Sunflower League play, in which they faced four teams that qualified for the state tournament. The Lions failed to make it to the sub-state championship game for the first time since 2014.

While many players were adjusting to bigger roles, Lawrence also dealt with injuries. Senior Sophie DeWitt, the team’s primary defender, suffered a season-ending injury in January. Amaya Marshall missed the final two games with a knee injury, and Serenity Keo missed a few games as well during the season.

“I think with some of the injuries and the stuff, that our team realized you have to appreciate the opportunity to play,” Dickson said. “I learned how much they care and how resilient they are. I learned how mentally and physically tough they are.”

While there were plenty of struggles, there were also some bright spots for the Lions. In her first year as the go-to option, junior forward Ozi Ajekwu was the lone player in the Sunflower League to average a double-double with 10.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. She also shot 54% from the floor and swatted 99 shots on the defensive end.

And Marshall, who started nearly every game as a freshman point guard, averaged 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest. She also made 36% of her attempts from beyond the 3-point line. Ella Stewart was also a threat from long range during her final season with LHS.

Even in the Lions’ losses, they showed plenty of toughness. In the regular-season finale, Lawrence lost, 39-28, to Shawnee Mission West (No. 9 in Class 6A at the time) — but the Lions managed to put up a fight even with Marshall, Stewart and DeWitt sidelined.

“I’m proud of the fact that we battled all the way through the end (of the season),” Dickson said. “I’ve seen teams that get to a certain part of the season, and they are not winning, so the wheels come off. I don’t feel like that happened with our group at all.”

Throughout the season, Dickson showed his younger players some film of previous LHS standouts from when they were younger.

E’Lease Stafford, who now plays for East Tennessee State, wasn’t a huge scoring threat in her first year. Hannah Stewart, who eventually held down the point guard position, battled with turnover issues as a freshman. Chisom Ajekwu, now a member of the KU women’s hoops squad, wasn’t always dominating the paint.

Dickson pointed this out to his younger players to show them what they could accomplish down the road, especially considering how their first season went on the hardwood. Marshall, Keo, Hailey Ramirez and Geme Ajekwu all flashed potential as freshmen, and sophomore Layla Harjo made an impact, as well.

“I think they all learned that they belong,” Dickson said. “I think just mentally — surviving it and going through that kind of grind — everything that they will do moving forward will be easier.

“We are going to be really, really good moving forward,” he said. “This group is going to be as good as any we have had in the time that I have been at Lawrence High.”


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