Archer seniors Alesha Mann (21) and Kayla Rogers (20) may have seen their roles change from their past three seasons in the girls basketball program. But they are just as much a reason the Tigers will be taking on McEachern for the Class AAAAAA state championship Saturday night at the Macon Centreplex. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
LAWRENCEVILLE — Like teammate Madison Newby, Alesha Mann and Kayla Rogers knew coming into this season that this season would be different from any other they had experienced in their careers in Archer’s girls basketball program.
With a strong freshman class entering the program after winning a county middle school championship a year ago, plus the addition of high-scoring transfer Amber Skidgel, both seniors knew their roles were going to be considerably different from what it had been the previous three seasons.
And that’s just fine with the two 5-foot-7 wings, especially with the Tigers (29-3), heading to the Macon Centreplex to take on McEachern in the Class AAAAAA state championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I knew, of course, we had a good (freshman) class coming up, but I knew it would help the team,” said Mann, who stands in the top four on Archer’s career lists in points, assists, steals and 3-pointers. “And I just wanted to be selfless and not worry about me, but worry about what’s going to benefit the team going forward.”
On the surface, it would appear Rogers and Mann were asked to take a step back to make way for talented freshmen like Autumn Newby, Linsey Marchese and Tia Shorter, as well as transfers Skidgel and Tatiana Wayne.
They routinely split a spot in the starting line-up after both being starters much of their careers, and their minutes have gone down this season.
And yes, their numbers are smaller this season, with Rogers averaging 6.5 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.7 steals and Mann averaging 5.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 2.0 steals.
But make no mistake, their roles are no less important to the Tigers’ continued rise toward the top than they have been their previous three seasons.
In fact, head coach Ryan Lesniak says that if anything, he’s relied more on the two seniors.
“They’re high-character kids,” Lesniak said. “They’re both super positive, as well as the other two seniors — Kristin Hawkins and Holli Sturgill. All four of them have taken these new members of the program under their wing. I couldn’t be more proud of them and their attitudes and character. That means more to me than any of the wins as a coach.
“They’ve had great careers, and there’s nothing that should overshadow the great careers they’ve had. One thing I know about these two kids, they don’t need (recognition). They want to win. That’s more special to me than anything.”
True, some players in Rogers and Mann position may have felt like they were being asked to step aside for a new group of players for their senior season.
But that’s not the way they saw the situation.
“It really wasn’t that difficult,” Rogers said. “I just felt like once (the newcomers) came in, (I saw) they were pretty good, and I thought we were going to (go) far (this season).”
It’s also not the way Lesniak saw things either.
While the pair may have taken on a less visible role, he says it hasn’t made them any less important to the team’s success.
“Everybody’s role on this team has spread,” Lesniak said. “I don’t feel like they’ve taken a back seat. They’ve been a part of a bigger puzzle. Whereas in past years, them two and Madison (Newby) have been the only three kids that could consistently score. (Now) when you put six or seven kids out there who, on any given night (can score big), it’s just spreading out (production).”
A closer look reveals there are tangible numbers to back up Lesniak’s assertion.
For example, while Rogers’ scoring average may be down this season, the Tigers have still turned to her for clutch scoring when needed, particularly from 3-point range.
In addition to having reached the 1,000-point mark for her career in Archer’s semifinal win over Lowndes last weekend, she remains the program’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets with 196, and currently trails only Skidgel for this year’s team lead with 45 baskets from behind the arc.
Included in those totals are seven 3-pointers that she made while on her way to a school-record 23-point night in a win over Brookwood on Jan. 25. She’s also hit two clutch 3-pointers in each of the Tigers’ last two victories in the state tournament.
Mann, meanwhile, has seen her biggest contributions on the defensive end, where she is second on the team behind only Madison Newby with 65 steals and has been a reliable component, whether the Tigers play their traditional zone or venture into a man-to-men set.
“I know that I benefit the team more defensively,” Mann said. “And I know that if I bring energy … on that side of the court, it will also help.”
Mann also brings plenty of championship experience to the Tigers as she and fellow seniors Hawkins and Sturgill were members of Archer’s 2012 state title-winning softball team.
“From softball, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Mann, who is signed to play college softball at Georgia Southern beginning in the fall. “I knew I not only had to work hard to get better each day, but we all had to try to want to win the rings and want it more than anyone else. I know in basketball, if you have to have that drive, that same work ethic, you’ll get there.”
And setting that kind of example is what Lesniak says are the biggest assets both Rogers and Mann bring to the Tigers, and those leadership skills will be key as they prepare to meet McEachern on Saturday.
“We’ve preached family since day one,” Lesniak said. “When you’re part of a family, everything doesn’t work out exactly as you want it to every day, but getting to call those other girls sisters and those other girls getting to call these two sisters is a huge deal.”