Nov. 30—Expectations will be soaring for the Tahlequah girls' basketball program this season.
The Lady Tigers return all but one player from last year's team — a group that advanced to the program's first state championship game since 2001.
Head coach David Qualls guided Tahlequah to a 23-3 overall record in 2020-21, won a Metro Lakes Conference title, captured an in-season tournament championship, won a regional crown and won an area championship.
Qualls feels this year's group is the most talented team from top to bottom he's had as a head coach in Tahlequah.
"We're excited about it," Qualls said. "We know for the most part, we have everybody back. We had a real strong summer and a strong preseason. This is probably our most talented group athletically. We're experienced and we have a good balance of players. This is a good group to play fast with, and that's the way we want to play."
The Lady Tigers return veteran guards Lydia McAlvain and Lily Couch, newcomers from a year ago who had strong impacts in guards Smalls Goudeau and Tatum Havens, and forwards Faith Springwater, Kori Rainwater, Jadyn Buttery and Emily Morrison.
The only departure is point guard Kacey Fishinghawk, who is now playing at East Central University. Fishinghawk averaged 8.5 points and led the team with 49 made 3-pointers on 47.6 percent shooting.
Goudeau, who averaged 9.5 points in 16 games after transferring from Sequoyah, will fill the void at point guard left by Fishinghawk and be the fifth starting point guard in the last five years. Goudeau, a recent University of Texas Arlington signee, along with Havens, an East Central signee, just went through their first full offseasons with Tahlequah. Havens averaged nine points in her first season after moving from Ada.
"One of the areas we have improved from last year is chemistry," Qualls said. "Tatum didn't get much time with us last summer because of the COVID stuff, and Smalls joined after Christmas break. Just getting all the pieces to kind of gel, fit right and understanding roles...it's big for us going into this season. We didn't really have defined roles last year. This year we have a better idea of everything."
The biggest question mark for Tahlequah will be the adjustment to Class 6A following its deep run in 5A.
"6A is going to be tough," Qualls said. "It's talented, it's deep. We were counting the other day and I think there's 20 girls in 6A that have Division I offers. There's just talent everywhere, especially on the west side. It'll definitely be an adjustment and it's a step up. At the same time, our mentality is just to win the next game. We want to take it game by game. That's just how we'll take it until we get to March."
The Lady Tigers do have some familiarity with 6A opponents after summer matchups and recent preseason scrimmages. They've seen Edmond North, Bixby and Norman, which are all projected to be top three teams.
"We've thrown them to the wolves already," Qualls said. "I think that our mentality is that we know we can compete. In 6A it's more difficult to overcome an off night than it would in 5A. I think our group is up to the challenge."
McAlvain, Couch and Springwater have the most experience within the program. McAlvain averaged 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and shot a team-best 81.8 percent on 88 attempts from the free throw line as a junior. Springwater averaged 7.9 points and 4.1 rebounds, and Couch averaged five points and was one of three players to play in all 26 games.
Rainwater provided an inside threat as a freshman last season, averaging 8.2 points, a team-high 6.2 rebounds and shot 49.1 percent overall from the floor. Buttery averaged 3.8 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman.
Others expected to contribute are sophomore guards Talyn Dick, Jersey Retzloff, Mykayla Hayes and Madi Matthews, and junior forward Averi Keys.
Qualls has his eyes set on the program's fifth state tournament appearance in the last six years.
"It'll be tough to get there, but your goal every year is to get to the state tournament," Qualls said. "I think we're pretty hungry after how last year ended, and it was kind of a kick to the gut to have that bump up to 6A this year. This is a team that's absolutely more than capable of playing in the Class 6A State Tournament."
Tahlequah opens its season Tuesday when it hosts Collinsville in a 6 p.m. start at the Tahlequah Multipurpose Activity Center.