After graduating the bulk of their production off last season’s 5A state championship team, no one expected the Vilonia Lady Eagles to be soaring at the top of the 5A-West Conference at this point, not even Vilonia coach Alvin Riley.
The Lady Eagles (21-1, 8-0) are finding themselves in a similar position from a year ago. At this time last season, Vilonia was ranked No. 1 in the state and undefeated in conference play. Once again, Vilonia is the top-ranked team in Class 5A, and in line for a No. 1 seed in the state tournament, after running through without a blemish on its conference record so far. The Lady Eagles lost one time all of last season, and that was on the road at Greenwood late in the conference schedule. So far this year, they’ve only collected one loss, and that was to Conway Christian in the finals of the First Security Bank Battle at the Brier.
"We were hoping to be good before the season, but to be 21-1 and undefeated in the conference is a big surprise," Riley said. "It has been because of hard work and dedication, and time preparing for each game. One thing that we have been doing this year is watching a lot of film. So the girls are doing what it takes to prepare."
The Lady Eagles have not gotten away from some of those same principles that led to the school’s first girls basketball state title, including their defensive intensity. Vilonia leads the conference in points scored against per game, which was one the same categories it finished No. 1 in the West last year.
"We’ve been able to get steals and put pressure on the ball," Riley said. "Overall, we’re not that big, but we do a good job of working for the high percentage shot."
Vilonia has balanced scoring in its lineup, with all five starters scoring in double-figures at one time or another this season.
"That’s really important having more than one person that you can go to for points," Riley said. "Teams can stop one player, and the better teams can definitely do that. When you have balanced scoring then that opens the floor and teams can’t just focus on one player."
Other trademarks of Riley’s teams are they’re strong on the defensive boards, patient on the offensive end, have excellent ball-handling abilities and they have a high basketball IQ because of an advanced scouting report.
"That’s what we have built our team off is defense." Riley said. "We wouldn’t be able to do what we do now if we didn’t have guards who could handle the ball. We do a good job with our ball-handling and not turn the ball over.
The future also bodes well for the Lady Eagles with underclassmen with experience, and their junior high class has talent.
"It’s good to be able to develop a winning program," Riley said. "You’re always going to lose players each year to graduation, but those players who are still there will be able to feed off those who came before them. Some of our girls who don’t get much playing time, play against the starters everyday in practice, so that’s always helpful."