MOUNT ZION — Shane Davis saw the talent two years ago, but knew maximizing it would take time and work for the wins to really start showing up.
Davis, Mount Zion's girls basketball coach, had both of those things. In the middle of an eight-win season, a group of sophomores that included Lainie Wolter, Emma Ewing, Taylor Fox and Addison Rhoades each got important playing time. He knew that keeping them working wouldn't be an issue and that they each still had two more years in the program.
“I’m not saying I’m the greatest evaluator, but I saw the talent," Davis said. "I thought we were good but we were young. That young talent wasn’t anybody like a (Mattoon's Mallory) Ramage or (Charleston's Shae) Littleford where we had somebody that we could average 20 points a game. It was good talent that was going to take time to continue to get better. It was being patient."
The Braves won 14 games last when this group of seniors — Wolter, Ewing, Rhoades and Fox — were juniors. This year, Mount Zion blossomed under Davis, the Herald & Review Macon County Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. The Braves won 26 games and a Class 3A regional championship — their first regional championship since 2013.
"It’s just been a steady progression of getting better and working hard," Davis said. "These seniors had the love for the game, so that wasn’t the question. It was just getting better, playing together and getting older and more mature."
Before the season, Davis set his goal of 20 wins. On Feb. 1 at Effingham, Mount Zion won its 20th game. Associate superintendent Brian Rhoades, who also keeps the book for the team, told Davis he should have set his goal at 25 wins. Mount Zion passed that goal, too.
The Braves went 26-8 before losing to Rochester in the Class 3A Champaign (Central) Sectional semifinal. The team was a long way from an eight-win season just two wins prior. Davis was so confident that wins were on the way that he voiced his logic to a few people in the building.
“If we don’t win games in the next two years and get better, then I shouldn’t be the coach," Davis recalls saying. "That’s just how it should be because these girls have the talent. It’s just being patient and continuing to believe. I just believed in what I saw that they were good and they had the talent and that they would keep working and the wins were going to take care of themselves."
Davis is well-connected in the coaching realm and leaned on some of those connections through the lean years. Losing is hard, and it can take a toll without the light at the end of the tunnel always being visible. He leaned on Bismarck-Henning-Rossville-Alvin coach Gary Tidwell, whom he has known since college at Olivet Nazarene University, former Sullivan coach Scott Thomas, former Mount Zion coach Don Steers and former Mount Zion girls basketball assistant, and current track and cross county coach, Kelly Fox for advice. Each offered something different, but Davis credited each of them for instilling nuggets of information and being an open ear for him.
Thomas and Steers were instrumental in the Xs and Os of the game while Tidwell and Fox encouraged Davis to keep plugging away.
There were very few fundamental changes in the team ahead of this season. The Braves played a little faster and pressed a little more, but Davis and his coaching staff didn't implement and widespread changes. Instead, they waited for their players to develop and pressed the right buttons at the right time.
"This has been a complete joy, just the transformation from cocoon to butterfly type of thing," Davis said. "All I know is it was a fun season. What’s cool is, I think that even though we’re losing four of those five starters, I think there’s a joy and there’s a fun that we’re going to get after it still that will continue to help us even next year when we’ve got to fill those spots."
PHOTOS: Mount Zion girls lose in Class 3A sectional semifinals
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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