Last season, Central Arkansas Christian had a 40-game conference winning streak that was snapped, following an injury to junior Bethany Dillard in the fourth quarter of a 39-32 loss to Little Rock Episcopal Collegiate on Feb. 4.
Dillard, now a senior, is a four-year starter and all-conference player and was named all-state the past two seasons. Dillard, who will sign with Union University this fall, averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists per game last season at point guard. Head coach Steve Quattlebaum said she could play and guard all five positions this year.
“To exceed last year, Bethany Dillard has to have a great senior year and stay healthy,” Quattlebaum said. “And we have to do a good job of trying to lighten the load on her a little.”
CAC finished 27-7 last season and was conference co-champion with a 12-2 record. The Lady Mustangs lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament to Charleston, 55-54.
Junior Ava Knoedl has been the second leading scorer for CAC since she was in the ninth grade, and last season, she averaged
13 points and 3 rebounds per game. Quattlebaum said Knoedl has improved her ability to attack the basket off the dribble.
“Ava may be the best pure shooter I have coached in my 37-year career, and I have had some good ones,” he said. “Ava, like Dillard, played a lot of the year with a foot injury that required surgery this summer.”
Quattlebaum said Knoedl just got cleared to play at the first of October.
Junior Stella Smith started the last 10 to 12 games as a sophomore and really improved during the season. Quattlebaum said Smith is long, athletic and a very quick jumper who is very good defensively. He said he is looking for her to take over more of a role in the offense this year.
Sophomore Riley Bryant, who came up last year at the end of the junior high season, will be counted on to help on the inside, and Bryant has really improved her 3-point shot,” Quattlebaum said. “She is one of the hardest workers on the team and is already starting to get some looks from colleges.
“Sophomore Livian Burton has really impressed me this fall. She is one of the best athletes on the team. She is getting healthy and working hard and should provide some great depth in the post.”
The coach said sophomore Peyton Gaston is one of the most improved players over the past two years and has really developed a nice touch around the basket and has been working hard to compete for minutes.
Sophomore Lake Ramey missed last season because of a transfer, Quattlebaum said, but can play the 3 spot and has really worked on improving her shooting and scoring ability.
Junior Reese Shepard is one of the team’s better passes and assist person and has worked to improve her 3-point shot, and “she is poised to have a great year,” Quattlebaum said.
“Depth will come from a talented group of sophomores like Katie Odom, who also sat out last year after coming over from e-Stem,” he said. “She is a good shooter and offensive player who is working to improve her defense so she can get on the floor.”
The coach said sophomore Carleigh Petlak is already one of the best defenders, works really hard and is improving her shooting and decision-making. Sophomore Avery Lillard had a really good junior high season last year, Quattlebaum said, and has a good shooting touch and eye for the basket.
“She really made an effort last year to practice and play a little harder,” he said. “She will compete for some of those backcourt minutes.”
In November, CAC will play defending state champion Kirby, and in December, CAC will go up against rival Pulaski Academy, who has beaten CAC in the teams’ past two games. The coach said another game to watch is a nonconference game against Mayflower, who was a state semifinalist.
Quattlebaum said CAC has a core group of about four players who all played as ninth-graders and have played a lot of basketball together. Quattlebaum said if the sophomores can improve and provide some great support by the end of the year, CAC could be a very solid team.
“We are capable of being a really good shooting team, especially from the 3-point line,” he said. “But at the same time, we are very young, but the good thing is, we have some talent and athleticism in the sophomore class, who will probably fill one starting spot and provide all of our depth off the bench, which is a little terrifying for a coach.
“We have a long history of having quality contributions off the bench, and by the end of the season, there is no doubt in my mind we will have it figured out.”