Zion girls basketball coach Tanya Johnson (right) makes a point to Syerra Cunningham during practice Monday at the high school. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
They’re creating the buzZ
The Bees return one of the best players in the area in 5-9 junior wing Sam Rodriguez. Rodriguez started as a freshman on the squad that brought home a class 4A runner-up trophy in 2010, and with Crump graduating, she’ll be called on to win games for the Bees this year.
6-1 senior transfer Syerra Cunningham was a three-year starter at Waukegan and comes into the season in the best shape of her career. Her skill set is not the same as Crump’s, but she has the potential to dominate games in the post.
5-6 senior guard Kaitlyn Stabenow showed an ability to hit from long range last season and has improved her ball-handling skills and defensive play.
6-2 sophomore Mia Yarbrough is a post player who showed the ability to hit from the perimeter last year as a freshman playing on the varsity squad. She may need some more time to adjust to the varsity level, but according to Coach Johnson, “When she figures it out, the sky is the limit.”
5-5 junior guard Carlie Fernandez did not see a lot of action while up on the varsity squad as a sophomore last season, but has developed the skills necessary to be an important backcourt presence this season.
According to Coach Johnson, there could be some freshmen who will have an impact at the varsity level as well.
COACHSPEAK: TONYA JOHNSON ON ...
Head coach Tanya Johnson on:
Syerra Cunningham: “The addition of Syerra Cunningham is a gift. To have somebody come in, not just with her ability but with the leadership she’s shown, it’s great. It’s really tough to be a senior coming into a new school, but I’ve seen her making an effort to lead by example. I’m just excited to get to coach her and to have that competitive presence on the floor that she brings.”
Sam Rodriguez: “The big things that I’m looking for from her are to make those around her better because of her play and to be a more defensive-minded player. Instead of letting her offense dictate her defense, I’d like to see have a defensive mentality. If she can do that, everything else will follow. I’m also very hopeful that her floor maturity has improved.”
Kaitlyn Stabenow: “Kaitlyn has done a lot of work on her ball-handling and her pull-up jumper. Her confidence is really improved from last year. Last year was a confidence-building season her. She’s a senior ... it’s her time.”
Mia Yarbrough: “I know the light bulb is going to go on for her. I don’t know when that will be, but I know it will. She can be really good. The switch is turning, it’s just not all the way there yet.”
TRACKING THE ZEE-BEES ...
Last year: 21-9 (6-6 North Suburban Conference Lake Division); lost a very winnable game to Wheeling 50-45 in Class 4A sectional final at Palatine
Key Loss: 6-0 F/C Octavia Crump (now playing at Illinois State University)
Also Gone: 5-7 F/G Morgan Franklin & 5-10 F/C Aaliyah Smith
Thanksgiving tournament: Deerfield Invite (Nov. 19-24)
Christmas/Holiday Tournament: Montini Invite (Dec. 26-29) (Note: Montini is one of the five best programs in the state. They are what Z-B wants to be.
Head Coach: Hall of Famer Tanya Johnson (66-25 at Zion-Benton, 4th season)
Updated: December 31, 2012 5:43PM
High school girls basketball coaching legend Tanya Johnson can tell you how things have changed with the Zion-Benton program from Day 1 of her first year with the Zee-Bees to Day 1 of her fourth.
“I feel better about where we’re at,” she said. “There are expectations now. There is a system, and I think the days of just showing up on the first day of tryouts and not participating in anything in the offseason are gone. In major programs, the kids want to participate in the off-season. They’re doing the extra things. They’re doing the strength training and the conditioning. Not because somebody tells them to do it, but because that’s what you do if you want to be a good program.
“That’s where this program has elevated. The kids are understanding that if you want to compete and do some special things, you have to put more into it than just the basketball season.”
And so it begins.
Two years after a pleasantly surprising second-place finish in the big-school state tournament — a result boosted at least somewhat by the luck of the tournament draw — the reality of girls basketball at Zion-Benton High is this:
If the Bees finish second — or better — in this year’s state tournament, it won’t be a surprise and the luck of the draw won’t have anything to do with it.
“If we’re the favorite (in the North Suburban Conference) , you know what? Good for Zion. When I walked in the door, we weren’t the favorite. We were more like the doormat. If we’ve raised the program to the level of respectability, then good for the kids ... the kids who have played and the kids who are here now. That means we’re doing something right,” the coach said.
“My focus is to help the kids be as good as they can be on the court and in the classroom. The thing I’m most proud of about this team at Zion is that every kid is pulling at least a “C” right now. We’ve come a long way. Getting our players to qualify and play in college, that’s a state-championship type of win.”
One of those former Zion-Benton players now playing in college is Octavia Crump, last year’s best player, who is at Illinois State University and on the Redbird team right now.
But almost unbelievably — and this is exactly what happens when a program is rockin’ and rollin’ — the enormous hole left by Crump’s departure was immediately filled by the enormously talented Syerra Cunningham, who spent her first three seasons losing nearly all the time at Waukegan.
Her dad — City of Waukegan alderman Sam Cunningham — may bleed Bulldog purple, but it’s Z-B maroon that’s in his daughter’s blood these days.
Pair her with junior star Sam Rodriguez and about three other ready-for-prime-timers and it’s time to get serious.
“You have to focus on getting better today and work on the things you have to work on because it’s all about the end of the season,” Johnson said. “We can’t fold up the tent because we hit a bump in the road. With the schedule we have — we’re playing in the Montini tournament with a number of really good teams — we want to be able to compete.”