DECATUR — The days of anonymity for the MacArthur’s girls basketball team are over.
After winning six games during the 2016-2017 season, the Generals improved to 19-13 last season and surprised a lot teams along the way.
This season — high school girls basketball begins Monday and MacArthur opens its season Thursday at Rantoul — opponents will see MacArthur coming, but coach Mike Williams has his team ready for the challenge.
"We have four returning starters plus a couple that played some starter minutes, and so when you come back with four experienced guards it makes things a little bit easier," Williams said. "We also have two experienced post players as well, so we should be able to pick back up where we left off."
The Generals return a strong group of senior leaders in Kyyawna Johnson, Jayda Dees and Mariah Shores.
Williams views Johnson as the Generals' general.
"We definitely go as she goes," he said. "She is our best defender and she is the kid that leads everything. She is our glue and without her we would be lost in a way but she keeps everything grounded and the kids respect her and listen to her."
Johnson relishes the role of captain and has the confidence in her game that can rub off on younger players.
"Being a captain makes me want to go hard to show the younger players what to do — to give them somebody to look at and stay positive and be a leader to them," she said. "I feel like I don’t give up any easy baskets and I get after every ball. I’m good at pushing the ball and getting it down the court and seeing everybody getting open and sharing the ball."
Jayda Dees led MacArthur in scoring last season with 12.8 points per game and she and Johnson team up on defense.
"For me and Kyyawna, we work on our defense a lot and that’s our strength -- our speed and our defense," Dees said. "We call Kyyawna, 'Speedy,' and she is our defensive leader and she runs it. She is our strength, wherever she is going we are going after her."
Dees is also quickly approaching the 1,000-point mark — she's 87 points away.
"She will probably get that pretty quickly and she will give us a lot of outside shooting and hopefully help us out on the rebounds, too," Williams said.
A focus of practice for the Generals before their season opener on Thursday has been speed and defense.
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"Today was speed — I wanted to to be conscientious of spacing. I want them to be selfless and make the extra pass," Williams said. "We have to do a better job on defense and boxing out and talking on defense. If we don’t do that we can’t compete with the Sacred Heart-Griffins and Springfield Highs and Glenwood Chathams and U-Highs."
The Generals are shooting for their first regional title since the 2009-10 season.
"We are going to be playing 10 to 11 kids this year and we are going to press a lot and run a lot," Williams said. "We don’t want teams to set up on defense. We want to push it down and make the other player run and cover us out on the perimeter."
Sophomores Quincenia Jackson and Taya Davis will also be called upon for even bigger roles this season. Jackson led the Central State 8 in shooting percentage last season at 59 percent and Davis will push the offense again as the Generals' point guard.
"Taya will be running the show and she just makes the game easy for everybody," Williams said. "She fell in love with lifting weights this year, which was good so now she handles that ball like it is a yo-yo. She shares it and gets everybody involved."
Williams brought significant change to MacArthur's program in his first year last season and this year the girls are completely buying in.
"With me being new last year I had to change the culture, and I was telling these kids it is actually fun to come to practice — there’s not all that drama, there is not the attitudes," he said. "Kids are working hard and they actually like each other and being around each other."
The improvement will be the key to the Generals' success.
"We are working on encouraging each other more and talking with each other — working through problems without confrontation," Johnson said. "I think it is going to drive us to more wins because we want to play with each other."
Before the season commences, Williams will take his squad to see a former MacArthur player take the court on the collegiate level.
"We are trying to do more team stuff and we are going to go see Courtnee Riley, who was our captain and starter last year, playing her second college game at Kankakee College, where she’s on a basketball scholarship," Williams said.
The message is clear: This is what can happen with hard work and commitment.
"It is going to be good for these girls to go back and show her some love and to show them that if you work hard you can get two years or four years of school paid for as well," Williams said.