Neuqua Valley excited about mix of young, old

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Neuqua Valley girls basketball coach Mike Williams says the last three years have been really good for the Wildcats.

This season could be even better.

Neuqua Valley graduated just two players from a team that went 27-4 and lost to Bolingbrook in the sectional finals. One of those players was Allison Hedrick, the Upstate Eight Conference Player of the Year, but Williams is confident about his team’s chances.

“It will be exciting,” Williams said. “We’ve got a nice mix of younger kids and juniors and seniors with experience. They’ve got different skill sets and that allows them to really complement each other.”

That versatility begins with sisters Najee and Malia Smith. The senior guards are seasoned and talented, with Najee coming off an all-conference season and Malia entering her fourth year at point guard.

“She’s been the starting point guard since her freshman year,” Williams said of Malia. “She reminds me of John Stockton — not flashy but she dictates the tempo and controls the game.”

Najee Smith, who at 5-11 is three inches taller than her sister, is more of a force in the paint and can give teams fits with her size.

“I think she’s just going to explode this season,” Williams said. “She’s gotten faster and stronger and can really get to the basket.”

Neuqua has enviable depth in the backcourt as sophomores Myia Starks and Kai Moon saw extensive playing time as freshmen. They are joined by 5-7 senior Niki Lazar, who plays much bigger than her size, and 5-6 senior sharpshooter Lauren Deveikis.

“Lazar is our Dennis Rodman,” Williams said. “She’s probably the toughest kid I’ve ever seen.

“[Deveikis] is our best three-point shooter. She can come in the game, hit three or four three-pointers and sit back down, then go back in later and hit some more.”

The front line isn’t quite as loaded, but still is in good shape with 6-2 senior Bryce Menendez, a three-year starter, and 5-11 junior Jamie McInerney. The top newcomer is 6-0 freshman Megan Keefer, who eventually could be a replacement for Hedrick.

“She’ll be in the top tier of kids getting action,” Williams said of Keefer, whose sister, Courtney, plays goalkeeper for Neuqua’s highly regarded soccer team. “It all depends on how she adjusts to the faster speed of the game.”

Williams expects the Wildcats could exceed their success of a year ago, a noteworthy feat considering last year’s squad had the third-most wins and tied for the fewest losses in school history.

“It’s probably the deepest we’ve been in a while, not just from a quantity standpoint but from an experience standpoint,” Williams said. “Our kids are determined to build on what they did last year. They want the opportunity to play in the supersectional game.”

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