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After dominating District 20-5A for the past two seasons, the Huntsville Lady Hornets are set for a new challenge.

The Hornets — who went 33-1 in district play with back-to-back league titles the past two years — will open District 16-5A action tonight at home against Tyler. The varsity teams are scheduled to tip off at 6:30 p.m., immediately following the conclusion of the junior varsity game.

With Jacksonville and Lufkin each rattling off undefeated district championships in the past two seasons, head coach LaToya Bennett is expecting a higher level of competition than in recent years. The coach and her players are looking forward to the test.

“I always expect for Lufkin and Jacksonville to give us a run for our money,” Bennett said. “Those are teams that we'd either scrimmage in the preseason or play early on in our previous district, and they've always been great competitors. I'm looking forward to getting into the swing of things and competing against them. I know both of those coaches, and I know their kids are going to be well-coached and take care of the ball.

“I haven't really seen Nacogdoches, Whitehouse and Tyler, but we're headed to east Texas and I'm sure they're going to be great competitors as well.”

The Lady Hornets enter league play at 8-7 following a rigorous non-district slate that included a showdown with the top-ranked 6A private school in the state, The Village School out of Houston. Huntsville dropped that game, but has since picked up pivotal wins over Bryan Rudder and Sweeny.

“We lost to Bryan Rudder by six in the playoffs, and they only lost one player from last year,” Bennett added. “They lost the one young lady that's at Sam Houston State, but they retained the majority of their varsity. I think the girls being able to get that win was crucial, and I also think the win over Sweeny was huge. That was a two-hour trip, and a big portion of our games are going to be two hours away. We got off the bus and were able to prepare to play a ball game after riding for two hours, and we were able to secure a big win.

“I think both were crucial. The Bryan Rudder game was a very mental and emotional game, and that Sweeny game is just being able to handle that adversity of travel. Both were crucial heading into district.”

With her youngest roster since arriving at Huntsville, Bennett points to “player development” as the biggest key to her team’s recent success.

“We have four freshmen on varsity this year, and that's more than we've ever had in the last three years that I've been here,” the coach said. “It's just getting those kids to play up and be able to play defense like we do here at Huntsville — aggressive, hard-nosed and being able to press. When we make a run, if you're a starter, you aren't coming off the floor. And just being able to make those necessary adjustments down the stretch to win games.

“I think that's what hurt us early on ... we were young, and those kids didn't have that wind under them. They just didn't know how to make those necessary adjustments to stay in the game.”

Offensively, the Lady Hornets have been led by Aliyah Craft and KeNysha Johnson, with both players averaging 15 points per game during non-district play.

“They're both offensive scorers,” Bennett said. “KeNysha got an injury earlier this season against Grand Oaks and that hurt us, because she was our leading scorer at that time. But she's been able to come back, rehab and give us those same points, not missing a beat. Aliyah is a great scorer from the 3-point line. She's very physical and athletic, and she's been doing a lot of great things for us offensively.”

Tya Rogers, the team’s point guard, has been pivotal on the defensive end, with Janavia Gage providing a spark off the bench, pulling down 14 rebounds per game.

Mahalia Twine has also stepped into a primary role as a defensive stopper for the Lady Hornets, and has held her own despite being just a freshman.

“She's a freshman with the starting group, and defensively, she's eating people up,” Bennett said. “I was able to put her against New Caney's best player, who is going to Oklahoma, She shut her down, and even though we didn't seal the win against Village, I put her against their best player and she shut her down. Then I put her against Bryan Rudder's best player, and we were able to get the win. Mahalia is playing almost 32 minutes for us, and she's doing a great job.”

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