Tillman shows great promise for Lady 'Horns

By Matt Hill

STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY- Even though she didn't proclaim it like former Tennessee Volunteer wide receiver Kelley Washington did, Johnson County girls basketball player Ryann Tillman might just be "The Future" when it comes to local hoops.
   Tillman leads the Lady Longhorns in scoring as a freshman, and has given every indication that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.
   At 5-11, Tillman can already be a dominate force at times. But it's how she has kept her composure under such great pressure that is very admirable.
   Most of the time in boys basketball, freshmen are lucky to even be dressing on the varsity, no matter how good they are. But in girls basketball, you see more freshmen playing varsity and contributing early.
   Despite the latter statement, not many freshmen are expected to come in and be the star of her team. But that's exactly the role Tillman has inherited this season.
   With the loss of top player Andrea McQueen to an ACL injury early in the season, the Lady Longhorns were without a major scoring threat. Tillman wasn't expected to exactly fill McQueen's shoes, but she has put up some big numbers so far this year.
   Tillman's most impressive game came against Hampton, where she scored 23 points in a 41-38 loss to the Lady Bulldogs.
   According to Johnson County head coach Eric Crabtree, Tillman's early success wasn't a surprise.
   "I knew she would do well, because we're not in a conference with true posts," he said. "Our conference doesn't have 5-11 posts. She came in at a good time. We expected her to have a double-double every game. I'm pleased with what she's doing, but I'm not surprised."
   Of course, playing a freshman on varsity is not going to be the most popular decision in the world. Tillman's case is no exception.
   Tillman's sudden ascension from junior high basketball into the starting lineup at JCHS was met with mixed reaction. But after McQueen's injury, it started making more and more sense to have Tillman out on the floor.
   Tillman has proven that she deserves to be out there. Tillman still has a lot of work to do if she is going to become a dominant player in the Watauga Conference, but the experience will only help her out in the long run.
   As far as the decision to start Tillman, the Longhorn head coach has no regrets.
   "You've got to look in the cubbard and pick out the five best ingredients," Crabtree said. "We've got to have on the floor the five-best that play the style that works for us. I don't even think about it anymore.
   "Looking back, I would do it the same way. I knew what I was going to get when I got her. There's no second-guessing the decision."
   Going into Tuesday night's game with Sullivan Central, the Lady Longhorns only had two wins. But three starters will be back next year, and so will one of the best young crops of talent that has ever been assembled in Johnson County.
   Freshmen like Paige Morefield and Jenny Tugman have received plenty of varsity experience this season, but the Lady Longhorns have also built a good junior high team led by sharp-shooter April McCloud.
   With Tillman leading the way, good things could be in store for Johnson County girls basketball in upcoming years.
   "We've got a very good future," Crabtree said. "The ninth graders are developing, and the 10th graders are going to develop. The eighth graders will contribute pretty early. If I can keep the base together, we're going to be tough in two or three years.
   "I'm going to have the talent, it's just creating a team. If we can develop a team concept, we'll be dangerous."
   Even tough Tillman is right now the leader of the pack among the young guns, Crabtree still feels like even she has a long ways to go.
   "She's got things to learn," he said. "She's got to get stronger, and develop mental toughness. The good thing is she's young and has loads of potential. But she's done well. She's played a lot of minutes, and that will only bode well in the future.
   With apologizes to Mr. Washington, "The Future" may very well be in Mountain City.
   We're just getting a taste of it.