Fresh Outlook Motivates Trojan Girls to Kick-Start Postseason Run

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Tuesday, March 5, 2019, 1:17 pm
By: 
Mark Meyer

Junior guard Sanaya Gregory (above) and her East Lansing teammates host Jackson at 7 p.m. Wednesday in a District semifinal game on the Trojans’ home floor. Photo by Jim Pivarnik.

Boppin’ around to the California surf sounds of the Beach Boys seemed entirely appropriate for the East Lansing girls basketball team, as it prepared to host this week’s six-team Class A District tournament.

The Trojans – who reeled off 17 consecutive wins to start the season before losing two of their last three games – are clear-cut favorites to advance past the first round of the 2019 postseason. So, not surprisingly, the mood during the warmup to Friday’s practice had a distinctly upbeat vibe to it.

The recent setbacks to DeWitt (58-46, Feb. 18) and defending Class A State champion Saginaw Heritage (55-53, Feb. 26) are in the rear view mirror, and it’s time to begin the second season.

“After losing the DeWitt game, we had a reality check,” said junior forward Ahlura Lofton, “it really humbled us. It showed us we need to get better, that we’re not as good as we think we are.”

East Lansing, 18-2 overall and co-champions of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue division, will begin District play in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. semifinal against Jackson, which defeated Okemos 57-43 in the quarterfinals Monday. The first semifinal game Wednesday matches Holt (11-10) – a 63-24 quarterfinal winner over Mason – against Everett (1-18) at 5 p.m.

Below: This year’s team poster features a yellow brick road leading toward Grand Rapids. Michelle Hoffman Photography.

Earlier this season the Trojans defeated Okemos twice (77-34 and 82-39) but have yet to face Jackson (15-6), which left the CAAC Blue after last season and has since become a member of the Southeastern Conference.

“We had a couple of setbacks at the end (of the regular season), but I can guarantee you we won’t make the same mistakes twice that we made in those games because I’m seeing in practice that the girls have taken another step in the right direction,” said East Lansing head coach Rob Smith, who has led the Trojan girls to one State championship (2010) and two runner-up finishes (2008, 2018) in his 17 years with the program.

Three players on this year’s team – Lofton and fellow juniors Aaliyah Nye and Sanaya Gregory – have started all 20 games and were key contributors to last year’s State runner-up team. Nye leads the Trojans in scoring average (17.4 points per game) with Gregory (9.45) and Lofton (8.3) the next two closest to averaging in double figures.

“Our big thing right now is to keep up the intensity in practice, and pay attention to every detail,” Gregory said.

Soraya Timms, one of three freshmen on this year’s team, has started 17 games and has developed into a key contributor in her first varsity season. She is averaging nearly seven points and four rebounds per game.

“It’s definitely been a big jump” from eighth grade to high school competition, Timms said. “Obviously the size, physicality and quickness of the girls is incomparable. But what’s been a struggle for me is having the confidence to be a freshman starter. My teammates have been great about supporting me that way.”

‘We’re focused, we have it locked in’

Alex Green, 25, a 2012 graduate of East Lansing High School, knows exactly the challenges that Timms has had to overcome. Green earned four letters in basketball at East Lansing before moving on to Saginaw Valley State University, where she was named team captain as a freshman and played four years. She currently holds the title of Sport Operations Coordinator in the sport management unit at Michigan State University.

Below: Former East Lansing standout Alex Green knows why the Trojan girls program continues to rank among the State’s elite. “(Coach Smith) challenged us … he knew our goal wasn’t to just make it through a practice or beat a conference team, it was to hold up a trophy at the end of the season.”

“Our high school practices were just as tough, mentally and physically, as were my college practices,” Green said. “I entered college in great shape so I was physically ready to compete.

“In terms of Xs and Os, Smith coaches the game like a college coach. He teaches concepts, strategies, game plans just as well as a college coach does. I was very fortunate to come from a high school program that preached toughness, work ethic, and attention to detail.”

Lofton is one of seven juniors on this year’s team, along with three sophomores and three freshmen. She believes the team feels fresh and ready for a return trip to Calvin College, site of the State semifinals and championship.

“Overall, we regrouped well,” Lofton said. “We’re energized. We’re focused. We have it locked in, one hundred percent, for this whole month.”

Even though most, if not all, of this year’s team should be returning next season, Smith believes there’s no time like the present to become the ones holding the ultimate trophy later this month.

“We have new energy and we have new life,” he said. “Everybody starts over this week. Everybody has zero losses, zero wins … and what you did during the regular season is noble. We won the conference championship (for the 16th time in the past 17 seasons) in a league in which we were picked to finish third.

“But I believe, and the girls do as well, that there’s more we can do.”

A new season. The road to Calvin is wide open.

 

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