CHARLESTON — Asked about the new cast of characters that will don a red and gold jersey and occupy his roster, Jeff Miller offered a wisecrack.
“I have to remember their names,” Charleston’s girls basketball coach said with a hearty laugh.
Yes, he does know who his players are. But this is where he’s starting this season. Charleston has four upperclassmen, three juniors and one senior, on its roster. The senior, Morgan Hutchins, has not played since her freshman year after two seasons dealing with injury issues. The rest of the Trojans’ roster is comprised entirely of sophomore and junior varsity newcomers and freshmen. Gone are six seniors, four of whom were starters or key rotation players from 2017-19. They helped Charleston go 54-4 record and win two regional titles in that span.
There’s only one holdover.
That is, of course, Shae Littleford.
When Littleford is the only constant and the one player to help bridge two different teams — or really, two different eras of Charleston girls basketball — life isn’t all that bad. A player of her caliber gives Charleston a higher floor than most teams undergoing such a heavy roster transition.
“She’s doing a tremendous job helping us as a staff instill our values in these girls,” Miller said.
Those values and program identity remain the same. Miller’s teams play at a high tempo and use an aggressive defense to fuel transition opportunities. Enter a game against the Trojans a tad sleepy or unfocused, and allowing 10 or more consecutive points to open it is a real possibility. For the first time in a few seasons, though, Miller has to start on Chapter 1 in teaching a new group these tenants. Practice is no longer spent fine-tuning minutiae.
“This year, it’s fun because we’re teaching again,” Miller said. “This is all new to a lot of these girls. We’re back to teaching basketball, which makes this a pretty fun atmosphere.”
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Added Littleford: “We don’t have a girl who doesn’t want to be here.”
Littleford is in an accelerated course of study compared to her younger teammates, but it does not come without its own work and tasks, not even after all she has accomplished in her first two years. She’s the reigning JG-TC girls basketball player of the year. In October, she committed to play college basketball at UT Martin.
There are empty boxes on the checklist, though. She wants to continue the development of her right hand and keep improving as a 3-point shooter. Above all, she’s striving to be the best extension of Miller on the floor during games and in practice as she can be. Miller needs her as a team leader as much as he does as a scorer and facilitator.
“To be able to coach and teach these girls how to play Charleston basketball, that’s probably the main focus for me this year,” Littleford said.
Miller seems likely to roll out a starting lineup with two or three freshmen in it when Charleston opens the season Nov. 19 at the Paris Thanksgiving tournament. That could be Charleston’s modus operandi all season, depending on who can seize an opportunity and keep it. Someone has to do it.
Miller had 25 days in June with his team to play scrimmages and practice, as IHSA rules allow. He left the end of the summer contact period impressed with his new group’s athleticism. But that’s only going to offer so much on its own. There’s skill development to be done, confidence to be built, an aggressive mentality to coach into them.
“You have to grow up real quick,” Miller said. “But they got better from the first day I saw them to that 25th contact day. I had a lot of people tell me that. I’m hoping they can get that much better from now until Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The girls on the underclass-heavy roster play for a coach who’s seen transition and thrived amid it. Miller has started three freshmen before. Charleston has won at least 20 games in five straight seasons and taken roster churn in stride. Littleford alone gives them an outside shot at a sixth straight year. How far the Trojans can go will depend on the impact those around her can make and how fast they can make it.
“Once we get that fire lit that they’re no longer considering themselves freshmen, even though they are, but start playing as an upperclassman,” Miller said. “That’s hard to do, but we’ve done it before.”