Expectations for the Cass girls basketball team were already going to be high, but the recent release of the preseason state rankings confirmed the Colonels' lofty aspirations were well within reach.
Cass enters the regular season, which for the Colonels is set to begin Friday at Walnut Grove, as the No. 6-ranked team in Class 5A per Sandy's Spiel and eighth in the classification according to the AJC. When the season comes to a close, Cass head coach Burt Jackson hopes his team is regarded as more than a top-10 team.
“Our goal is to get to the Final Four or beyond,” he said. “I always thought if you set the bar high, a lot of times they’ll meet it or even exceed it. The expectations are very, very high.”
The Colonels return nearly their entire roster from the 2019-20 campaign. After graduating just one senior, Cass brings back several experienced players, including Claire Davis and Londaisha Smith — who shared The Daily Tribune News Player of the Year honors last season.
“Claire, obviously, has gotten a ton of hype, and she’s preseason first-team all-state,” Jackson noted. “Londaisha is such a team player and such a great leader. She may be the best team leader, just maturity wise, that I’ve ever had."
Both Davis, a junior, and Smith, a senior, have received some collegiate offers. Senior Gracie Elkins, who is in her first season with the program after coming over from Kell High, also boasts a couple of offers, according to Jackson.
Cass (17-9 last year) also returns, among others, senior Ariana Hames; juniors Justice Bennett, Haley Johnson and Keara McDaniel; and sophomore Mikaela Jackson.
In total, Burt Jackson believes he has at least 10 players who should see extensive varsity minutes.
“They’re all going to get to play and play a lot, but they’re all still fighting for a starting spot,” he said. “I even told them, 'Every year I’ve coached, once I’ve had a set starting five, I’ve usually stuck with it for consistency purposes.' This year, based on who we play, I may go big, I may go quick, it’s really not going to matter, because all 10 are going to play at some point.
“Obviously, I’m excited. This is the deepest team I’ve had.”
That depth could be needed with COVID-19 quarantines for a few players here and there a serious possibility during the season. In addition to setting up a tricky regular season, the coronavirus likewise forced Jackson to completely alter his typical offseason program.
Instead of playing several scrimmages during the summer and using the fall for individual skill work and conditioning, he wound up putting his team in a fall league at LakePoint Sports. Jackson was unable to coach the team in the league, but after not being allowed to scrimmage other opponents during the summer, he felt it was worth the risk.
While he was most thankful that his players made it through the eight-game schedule without suffering any serious injuries, Jackson was pleasantly surprised that his team went undefeated against several bigger schools.
“I wasn’t sure we would win any games this fall when I saw the schedule,” Jackson said. “… I wasn’t sure, but this was as hard of a schedule as I could find close to home this close to the season. Lo and behold, we won every game.”
The extremely successful fall league showing further confirmed to Jackson that his team has the chance to put together a historic season.
Playing in a revamped Region 7-AAAAA, Cass will feel it has a strong chance to win a region title. From there, the team hopes to put together a deep playoff run that would secure the 2020-21 Colonels a place among the best in program history.
“If we play together as a team and stay injury free, obviously,” Jackson said, "we have a chance to have maybe the most special season at Cass in, I don’t know, 50 years."