MONROE – The Union Academy girls basketball program had immediate success out of the gate, but went through a decade long lull until the perfect storm combined a coach and her three stars that have helped transform the Cardinals from bottom feeders into one of the best 1A teams in the state.
Three seasons ago, Crystal Trull arrived at Union Academy and struggled like those before her in that first year going 8-15.
But the following season is when it all started to change with the arrival of freshmen Mya Manivanh and Savanna Brooks and junior Hickory Grove transfer MaKayla Smith.
“As freshmen, Savanna and I came in and started right away,” Manivanh said. “It was pretty scary sometimes playing against upperclassmen, but we stuck together and now we’re progressing together.”
It was in the opening game of last season, playing a senior-laden Piedmont team that would eventually wear down the inexperienced Cardinals in overtime, that Brooks said it all started to click.
“I don’t think we knew our full potential at first,” Brooks said. “When we lost to Piedmont it was a realization that, ‘Wow, we can play with these schools bigger than us.’ We’re only 1A, but I think we saw our potential playing a 3A school like that and it fueled us.”
From there, the Warriors won 24 of the next 25 games, with Smith running the point guard spot and Manivanh and Brooks making plays all over the floor. All three averaged double figure points a season ago, but senior Briana Pressley was the team’s leading scorer at nearly 17 points per game and fellow senior Lauryn Boyd averaged over eight points and seven rebounds.
While it was a great ride, the fun would eventually stop in the fourth round of the 1A playoffs with a loss to Murphy.
“It was a mix between excitement and disappointment,” Manivanh said. “We had never made it that far before so that was good, but it was a disappointment to lose. But you can’t go back and do it over again.”
But, as the Cardinals and Manivanh have found out, you can do it even better.
After walloping Community School of Davidson 56-26 on Jan. 19, the Cardinals are 14-1 and 6-0 in the PAC 7. Their only loss came by four points to 3A power Cuthbertson, but since they’ve reeled off 12 straight wins and are playing as well as ever.
“It’s definitely fun and it’s kind of cool to be making school history together,” said Smith, who scored her 1,000th career point in a win over Mountain Island Charter last week. “Last year was our first year. We were a completely new team, but we grew together, we started winning and it became fun. We have a really good relationship with each other.”
On the court, the Cardinals big three have been exceptional all season.
Smith, the senior, is the team’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, but she does everything well and also averages 6.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 5.4 steals.
Brooks is the team’s best outside shooter, and averages 13.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and nearly three steals per game.
Manivanh, who was an all-state defender as a freshman on the Cardinals state champion soccer team, averages 11 points, five rebounds, three steals and three assists per game.
Although all three have stepped up, the question of who would replace the production lost with the graduation of Pressley and Boyd was answered quickly with senior Erin Munday and junior Chiara (CC) Coppin.
Coppin averages six points and five rebounds, while Munday averages five points and 6.5 rebounds, but both do the intangibles that are making this a special season.
“Emma has stepped in and taken over basically the position Emma Boyd left and then we have CC,” Trull said. “She played varsity her freshman year and was a guard, but we’ve changed her position a little bit and she’s playing inside.
“Sometimes they don’t necessarily have high point production totals, but their defense, their rebounding and their hustle is huge. Emma is one of the fastest kids on our team and is one of the fastest, most athletic post players I’ve seen.”
Junior Kelsey Havican, sophomores Mia Fraticelli and Hannah Wease and at times freshman Ryleigh Clayborn have also made significant contributions to a team that has won 38 of its past 42 games.
“The most important thing for us is to be on the same page,” Smith said. “We all get along perfectly, and we know what this team can do. We know people’s strengths and what we all can do to benefit this team.”
They’re currently positioned sixth in Maxpreps.com’s rankings, which are used by the NCHSAA for seeding purposes.
Trull is hoping her team can continue to play as well as they are and hopefully wrap up a second consecutive conference title.
It that were to happen, the Cardinals would likely be in line for a first-round bye like last season and hopefully be ready for another long playoff run.
Either way, though, she likes her chances.
“I think people have told me I’m crazy, but honestly I think this year’s team is better than last year,” Trull said. “I think we have different tools and I think we have different ability levels. Where that will take us? I don’t know, but I would love to get a first-round bye again and go from there.
“I think they have ability to win a state championship, I just think we have to put our cards on the table and play hard and see what happens.”