MATTHEWS – Butler’s magical girls basketball season had plenty of highs as the Bulldogs went 28-3 last year and made it to the Final Four for the first time since the 2010-11 season when coach Mark Sanders was a rookie head coach.
But in the end, the Bulldogs got behind big early and could never catch back up with eventual state champion West Forsyth, who ended Butler’s season with a 57-39 loss.
“That last game we played we weren’t focused and we weren’t ready,” said senior post Michaela Lane. “I think we’re going to take that determination going into every game we play this year because we don’t want to feel that again.”
Lane and the Bulldogs have moved on from that loss and from last season because they have bigger concerns entering this year.
Sanders said it starts with the three players he lost – Hailey Nance (9.4 points, 7.2 rebounds), Michaela Dixon (6.6 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Renee Kennedy (3.9 points).
“We lost some huge ones,” he said. “They may not have always shown up in the stat sheet, but they did all of the dirty work. Dixon didn’t start, but she was huge for us. They got rebounds, they dove for loose balls, they didn’t worry about scoring and they would play defense if we needed someone to. They had the mental toughness that we need. We have a lot to replace. It’s going to take everyone we have to make up for those pieces.”
But Butler is ready and equipped with everything it may need to make another run.
Lane is the centerpiece of the offense and a player that can take Butler far. At 6-1, the stat-sheet stuffer can easily score in the post, but Lane can handle the ball, is a deft passer and has a great mid-range game.
Last season, Lane averaged 13.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 2.6 steals and 2.5 assists per game.
When Lane isn’t bringing the ball up the floor to start the break, steady point guard Payton Sutton will get her team in the perfect position.
“I like being able to see everything on the floor, and I’m at an advantage since I’m at the top of the key and can see who’s open and who’s not,” she said. “It gets hard sometimes, but that’s where my ball-handling comes in. That and my IQ are what makes the difference for me.”
Sutton averaged 7.2 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 steals and 3.6 rebounds per game and forms a great 1-2 punch with Lane.
Another key player is senior wing Michala Funderburk, who led the team with 14.6 points per game. Funderburk can get hot at any time from outside, but can also get to the basket with ease.
That’s something that outside threat Ashylnn Dotson (8.4 points per game) would like to add as a compliment this season to her fine outside shooting.
“This year I want to get open more in our offense and get more open shots for myself,” she said. “Also, really just not only shooting from the outside but driving it, too. This is our senior year, so I’m trying to find different areas to score the ball.”
Junior guard Semiah Williams will join the starting five this season and hopes to make up for the lost senior production. As a reserve last year, Williams averaged 2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, but this year she’s looking to up that.
“I see my role is picking up on the little things like rebounding, hitting open shots and finding open spaces, whatever it is that we need right then,” she said. “The defenses are going to be more focused on them, so I can take some of the heat off.”
Reserves Jada Tate and Noura Aboutaleb give energy, hustle and rebounding off the bench. Freshman Cheyla Scott will make a big impact as will 6-1 junior Mekiya Lane, Michaela Lane’s sister who played last season on JV.
With that kind of firepower and newcomers, this should be another dream season for Butler, who will be a big fish in the loaded Southwestern 4A that will feature frontrunners, Rocky River, Myers Park, Independence and Hickory Ridge who will all challenge the Bulldogs for the conference’s top spot.
“The experience of last year is great,” Sutton said. “We made it further than anyone in states and this year we plan on regaining that statement and getting a ring this year. We need to have more of that same energy that we had last year because everyone is coming for our necks this year.”
But that’s fine with the Bulldogs, who say they’re ready to get the season started and begin their quest to make amends for the way last season ended.
“We need to go hard in practice every single day,” Michaela Lane said. “I feel like as a team we go hard every day and I don’t think that every team competes like that. We work hard and our coaches hold us accountable for everything. We’re just getting ready for the season to start. We can take the criticism thrown at us, and we’re just ready to compete and go for it.”