North Forsyth basketball coach Eric Herrick lets out a sigh of relief at the sound of two names: Jenna Staiti and Sarah Myers.
For the last four years he’s had his hands full in county games trying to overcome teams with some of the most talented players in the area’s history.
Staiti and Myers—who played at West Forsyth and South Forsyth, respectively—confirmed to outsiders of their pedigree and transcendent talent with their dual-commitment to the University of Maryland (Staiti has already gained notoriety with the Terrapins following two successful outings in exhibition games). But before the stars were suiting up to play Big Ten basketball, they helped their teams build a road block in Forsyth County, and Herrick and his Lady Raiders often felt like they were just on the other side of that barrier.
Staiti averaged 26.5 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game in her final season and knocked down 41 percent of her shots from beyond the arc. Myers averaged 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2.5 assists per game, and she never lost to a region opponent in her senior season when she played and finished a contest.
North’s only victory against either team last season was a 47-35 win in the regular season finale where Myers went down with what was, at the time, a worrisome ankle injury.
“I’ll tell you right now, I’m glad those two are finally gone,” Herrick said, tongue in cheek. “We had some great battles against those kids. They were two of some of the most talented players you will see at any level, but the competition against them just made everyone else in the region better. We had to work that much harder to compete night in and night out.”
Now the monolith that was Staiti is gone, as is the arsenal of Myers. Somebody, somewhere, is about to become the next big name in Forsyth County basketball.
Beyond individuals, there’s also no telling which team is going to take control of the truncated Region 5-7A, which replaced the north Fulton schools with Milton and a familiar face from the county seat in Forsyth Central.
The truth is, beyond the two biggest stars to ever play in the district, no team from the county has been without a hurtful departure: Central loses forward Julie Richards, West also graduated the steady Jane Ortlip, South also said goodbye to a talented point guard named K.K. Storms and Lambert will no longer have point guard Ashley Johnson or center Shayna Lawrence. Each team will be making big-time adjustments.
This is where Herrick feels like his team is in exactly the right place at the right time. The Lady Raiders got a head start last season on learning how to fill a void when star player Haley Simpson tore her ACL. Although Simpson is on the mend she missed all of her junior softball season this fall and has chosen to put basketball to the side. But the Lady Raiders rallied without her anyway, ending last year’s regular season campaign on a seven-game winning streak. They were also 9-2 through the final 11-game stretch and the only losses were to—you guessed it—Staiti and Myers.
Despite the losses, South head coach Keith Gravitt and West head coach David May often walked off the floor after games against the ladies from Coal Mountain with shrugs of relief and emotional exhaustion. They’d harp on the defensive mentality and toughness of North even before the FCN could peg them with questions.
Herrick’s team has an identity that has carried over into a year of uncertainty that favors the Lady Raiders, and he’s also got what he thinks will soon be the next big star to come through rank.
“Caroline Martin,” Herrick said, confirming some previously off-the-record grapevine talk from months ago about where his team was headed during the offseason. “She has the most potential of anybody on our team, not just of our freshman. She’s extremely athletic, but she’s been used to being the best player on the floor—it’s not going to be that way in varsity. She’s essentially taken two big steps up, but she’s going to, if not start, be our first girl off the bench and hopefully contribute for us early on.”
Herrick says Martin can play any position on the floor—an absurdity from a girl entering her first year of high school. She’ll join talented veterans like sharpshooter Amber Jones and dirty-work aficionado Cassie Markle to build the team’s core.
With five freshmen on the varsity roster, Herrick was initially worried about the team’s chemistry. He was proven wrong without having to organize a supplemental offseason team-building exercise.
“You see the girls all together, posting pictures and stuff hanging out as the team, and they’re all there,” Herrick said. “The freshman, the seniors. Our upperclassmen have done a great job of making sure everyone is included. Sometimes you worry about young girls coming in and taking minutes away from others who have worked hard on varsity to get playing time, but it hasn’t been that way here.
“Sydney Bartlett is a perfect example. She has played spot minutes throughout her career, but she talks to me every day in practice about how this is about the team, not her. If you ever come to one of our practices you hear her voice loud and clear. She’s working to lead and build a culture. When you’re a coach and that stuff materializes without you having to say anything, that’s a big weight off my shoulders.”