The Amory Lady Panthers will have a familiar face taking over as their new girls’ basketball coach as assistant coach Nathan Newell moves up to head coach this season.
Newell, a 2012 South Pontotoc graduate, spent last season as the assistant coach for both the boys and girls’ teams as each had a strong season with playoff showings. Amory coach Brian Pearson was the head coach for both teams last season but is going back to just handling the boys’ team next year.
“I was ecstatic about this. Coach Pearson and I talked about it and how it was so tough with just me and him doing both. We knew that we either needed help or were going to have to do something differently,” Newell said. “He talked about how he would like to focus on the boys and just opened it up and asked if I would be interested. I thought and prayed about it and talked to my wife about it, and I thought it was something I could do and that I would like to do.”
Newell spent one season as a volunteer assistant coach for Houston before going to Grenada for two seasons.
“It was just good to be under two coaches in Chris Petit and Joey Cooley who knew their stuff, knew what they were doing and always had a game plan, who made the playoffs,” Newell said. “Houston made the playoffs the year I was there, and Grenada we made the playoffs both years I was there.”
The Lady Panthers have had 16 or more wins the last four seasons, including 2017 when they reached the state championship tournament in Jackson.
“The Lady Panthers have a good legacy and good history of winning ballgames. What Coach Paula Wax did was amazing, and what Coach Pearson did last year in one year was amazing. I just thought it would be a great opportunity to get started,” Newell said. “One, I already love the school and where I work. I love the people I am around and the network I can get and gain here, and I just feel like of all the places I could start, Amory was a good place. I feel like they have a shot to do something special, not just this year, but in the upcoming years. I see a lot of talent, support, hard work, and I think it was something that was meant to be.”
Newell named preparation as being the biggest thing he learned from Pearson last season.
“There’s never a day that goes by that he doesn’t have everything mapped out to a T. If one little thing goes wrong, it just messes everything up, and he will start over from scratch and do it all over again,” he said. “That was my downfall because now I have to think that I’m not just an assistant anymore. I have to think of all these other things that I have never had to think about, so being able to plan for those things, things that might or might not happen, just to be prepared, that’s definitely one thing I got from him. He’s very, very good at preparation.”
The Lady Panthers graduate just one starter in senior Jhalia Small, who led them in scoring and rebounding.
“We have the whole team coming back besides her. We will have a big senior group of seven if nothing changes, and that last year of those girls getting that experience, those minutes, that’s going to help a lot for this year,” Newell said. “We’re going to have to rely on them. We also have some young talent coming up too that will be able to help us out down low to help replace what Jhalia gave us last year.”
That upcoming senior group includes returning starters Amaya Trimble, Kimiya Parks, Jatavia Smith and Emma Kate Wright.
“We’re going to look to those girls as leaders. They know each other, their tendencies and what each other is good at. Hopefully that will carry on into the season this year,” Newell said. “Amaya is going to take on the role of being the No. 1 point guard, and she came on really well at the end of the year last year. What I like about her is her aggressiveness and that she knows when to be aggressive and when to set her teammates up.”
With most teams at a standstill with schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Newell sees his familiarity with the team and the experience they are returning as a positive during a time when extra practice is being missed.
“We have had a year to build that relationship. I’m not just going in starting from scratch. I get to build on the same principles that we built on last year and just take those girls in and try to make something work out of them,” Newell said. “Hopefully in the summer, we will get to do something because that is an advantage for me already knowing our strengths and weaknesses were. We could kind of work on that this summer, so hopefully we can get back in the gym and get to work. I’m excited and ready, and I think the girls are too.”
Amory comes back into a strong division in Division 1-3A, which includes 3A powerhouses in Belmont and Kossuth.
“It’s a tough division, but as a coach and especially a new upcoming coach, I like a challenge,” Newell said. “I like someone telling me, ‘What about Kossuth or Belmont?’ and ‘You’re not going to be able to do that.’ I like that challenge and the mindset of being an underdog and showing people what we can do.
“In my honest opinion, I think we have some girls who can play, a great staff and I think we will turn some heads this year. We are just going to play hard, be relentless and see what happens.”