Defense first: Panthers look to stop Woods, Elton, take control of District 4-1A

Rodrick Anderson

Merryville has averaged more than 75 points a game over the last two weeks, but the mainstay of the Panthers’ dominance this season has been their defense.

“Our defense is what we utilize as our strength,” Merryville head coach Stormy Fortenberry said. “It is a collective group effort.

“We preach to them defense. If you want to be a part of Merryville girls basketball, you have to be able to play defense with the intensity that we expect. It is starting to translate into our junior high program. We are intense, in your face for four quarters. It is who we are.”

The Panthers (19-2, 8-0) are on a 10-game win streak while holding opponents to 33.2 points per game. They will need every bit of defense they can muster to stop Elton (6-7, 5-1) today and the Indians starting center Vici Woods. The game will start at 6 p.m. at Merryville High School.

Woods is averaging 21.1 points and 19 rebounds a game and scored 29 points and pulled down 20 boards in a 58-43 loss to Merryville Dec. 29.

“She (Woods) is an excellent player,” Fortenberry said. “She is always a concern.

“This is not the first year. Ever since her first year, she has been a huge threat. You always have to know where she is. The past couple of years we put our senior guard (Maddie Mahfouz) on her. She will continue that task because I think it is a pretty good match up with those two.”

A Merryville win would give the Panthers a season sweep of the Indians and an inside track to its eight District 4-1A championship in nine seasons. The two teams shared the district title last season.

The Panthers are No. 2 in the unofficial Class 1A power rankings despite dealing deal with a pandemic and hurricane damage to their home gym, forcing them to play and practice at Singer until after the Christmas break. Fortenberry has been trying to keep things as normal as possible which is made easier with a seasoned starting lineup in seniors Mahfouz, Ariana Victor, Mekyah Hooper and Kaylie Lewis and junior Kailee Hickman.

“It hasn’t been the easiest trying to keep things normal,” Fortenberry said. “We preach to them about staying focused.

“It is a bunch of seniors and juniors. They are mature. There is a lot going on, but there is a level of expectation. I have some hard-working girls. They are focused. “Merryville’s Maddie Mahfouz puts up the shot over North Central’s Ya’Jaia Goudeau during the Class 1A semifinal round of the LHSAA state basketball tournament last season.

Rick Hickman

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