After beating Marshall to wrap up the first half of the season with an 11-1 record, Flora head coach Todd Countryman was quick to point out what his team accomplished.
“He was talking to us, after the Marshall game, that this part of the schedule was probably the weakest,” junior Crimson Jones said. “After Christmas, things are going to get harder.”
The Wolves' backloaded schedule includes Teutopolis, Newton and Paris, but they're confident they can handle it with the way the team, especially one of its seniors, is playing.
“We have Brooke Bayles,” Jones said. “She was good last year. She's really good this year.”
Bayles is scoring more than 13 points per game this season, an average five points better than last year, and shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. She has heated up lately, making more than half of her total 3-pointers in the last couple weeks.
“Right now, she's in a groove,” Countryman said. “That's taking pressure off a lot of people.”
Early in the season, Bayles stepped into a leading role with Jones out sick. Jones missed the Thanksgiving tournament in Newton, where the Wolves took their first loss this season, and didn't return to the starting lineup until Dec. 8.
Still, Jones was out of sync – 1 point in her return against Lawrenceville – and the Wolves needed Bayles (16 points) to pick up a six-point win.
“You know, I'm just basically a three-point shooter, so I just tried to score whenever I could,” Bayles said. “I just really feel like I've improved so much.”
Without her running partner, Bayles had to play around a lot more of the floor on offense. Countryman said the extra attention from opponents helped her improve.
“She had to work that much harder to get open and get shots,” Countryman said. “A couple games come to mind when she struggled from the perimeter and went inside to get buckets.”
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Bayles scored 20 in the Wolves' win against Marshall and Jones is getting into a groove at the right time, reaching double figures as regularly as she did last year when she averaged 12 points per game.
The Wolves (13-2) entered the Fairfield Holiday Tournament, which they'd won the last two seasons, clicking on all cylinders but placed second to Murphysboro (14-1).
Still, this season feels different – more promising – to the players, and it's not just that they have a new coach. Countryman, who spent the last eight years coaching junior high boys, is in his first year.
“We're playing more as a team this year than we did in the past years,” Jones said.
Countryman brought a different philosophy to practices, spreading focus around to all areas of the game, instead of having defensive tunnel vision.
“He's a lot different from our last coach,” Jones said. “He's more about all of it, not just defense. He wants us offensively good and defensively really good. That was kind of different.”
Coming off of a 20-win season last year, Countryman has kept the program on top. He knew coming into the job who he had on the roster – he was Bayles' teacher in junior high – and expected them to be good with or without his coaching.
“I didn't know a whole lot about what other teams had, but I knew we had a lot coming back,” Countryman said. “They've played together for a long time. They have a common bond.”
In some ways, he's just along for the ride.
“It's been fun,” Countryman said. “You're dealing with some teams that have potential college basketball players, and also coaches who've been around a while and know what they're doing. I'm learning as I go along.”