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BETHANY -- Okaw Valley opened its girls' basketball season Monday with a non-conference game against Shelbyville. Other non-conference games are Meridian before competing in the Pana Thanksgiving Tournament against Mattoon, Athens, and Christ Our Rock Lutheran. They also play Arthur Okaw Christian and Effingham St. Anthony before entering Lincoln Prairie Conference play at Arcola. Sullivan, Tuscola, WSS, and Nokomis are other non-conference games. 

"We play a challenging non-conference schedule by design," said Okaw Valley coach Brad Ackers, who is in his fifth year. "It is as tough as anyone in the area in Class 1A in my opinion. This will prepare us for both our conference and postseason."

Okaw Valley has four returning letter winners from a 10-20 team that finished second in the Little Okaw Valley Conference Northwest Division at 5-1. The four included Kate Jeffers, the lone senior along with juniors Delaney Johnson and Maiya Lehman as well as sophomore Shyanne Harding. Jeffers averaged 9.6 points and 10 rebounds per game. 

"Kate will be our leader this year," said Ackers. "She is a very good athlete and works as hard as anybody who has come through here. She played a significant role in our run (finished fourth in 2018) two years ago. She is involved in everything it seems that we offer here and that has made her very well-rounded. She knows what to expect this year."

Okaw Valley lost two players from last year due to graduation in unanimous first-team all-LOVC NW player, Madison Vogel, who averaged 12 points per game and second-team all-division player Bella Benning, who averaged 7.6 points per game. 

"We are still a very young team with only one senior," said Ackers. "Some young girls will see varsity reps and we will get them as ready as we can. We are not quite as tall as we were last year, but I am anticipating we will move better overall."

Expect the Lady Timberwolves to be a deep team. 

"We are a bit deeper than we have been in the past," said Ackers. "I could see up to 10 girls in the varsity rotation this week and that is something we have not had since my first year here."

A total of 12 are on the roster with four juniors, three sophomores, and four freshmen. 

"We return a lot of varsity minutes, both in the backcourt and the frontcourt, more than last year in that respect," said Ackers. "The girls know what is in front of them and what to expect this year. That will pay off when we face adversity this season too."

During the first two weeks of practice, which was a little shorter due to the snow as Okaw Valley missed two days of practice, the team worked on fundamentals and conditioning. 

Okaw Valley averaged 35.7 points per game and allowed 47.2 last year. 

One thing that could also help this season is, "This is the first time since I have been here that a majority of our girls (freshmen through junior classes) have been in our system and some of our principles at the middle school level.," said Ackers. "Jeffers was in the last group we had as eighth-graders before we changed some things up at the middle school level."

Acker said the expectations of the season never change. 

"We want to finish in the top half of the conference and ultimately win it. we want to play in a regional championship every year and ultimately win them. We want to play well and put ourselves in position for hardware in tournament play (Pana Thanksgiving Tournament, Meridian Holiday Tournament, and the LPC tournament).  We are looking forward to this season and see what we can accomplish as a group."

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