By Andrew Johnson

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon girls basketball team was going to be good this season, with or without Alyza Winston.

That was obvious in the Big Reds’ first eight games, which they played without Winston and won six.

But now Winston is in the lineup after sitting out the first part of the season due to transfer rules, and the Big Reds are ready to become everything they can be.

They are 3-0 since the Mona Shores transfer has been on the court, and have been averaging a gaudy 73 points per game.

Muskegon really put on a show in a recent matchup against a good Kent City squad. The Big Reds won 92-50, and sent a strong message to future opponents by showing off their big guns.

Senior guard Daz’sha Day, who has led the Big Reds in scoring all season, totaled 26 points. Winston, in her first game back on the court, finished with 25. Da’Shonna Day added 18 points.

Muskegon’s Daz’sha Day (left) stands with Coach Rodney Walker and Alyza Winston before a recent practice. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Big Reds’ next test will come on Friday, when they visit Mona Shores to play Winston’s former team in a key O-K Black Conference battle.

Muskegon is 5-0 in conference play while Mona Shores is 3-1.

For some fans, Winston’s return to Mona Shores will be a very big deal, since she played such a huge role for the Sailors for two seasons.

As a freshman and sophomore, Winston teamed with Michigan Miss Basketball Jordan Walker to give Mona Shores one of the best backcourts in the state. The two high-scoring guards led the Sailors to a pair of O-K Black championships and a 40-8 record over two seasons.

But Winston isn’t attaching too much importance to the matchup with her former teammates.

“I’m just staying calm,” Winston, who averaged 17.4 points per game for Shores last season, said about playing her old school. “It’s just another game. A lot of people think it’ll be a big deal. But it’s a big game and we’re rivals. So I’m just staying humble and I’m going to play my heart out.

“Whatever may be the outcome, will be the outcome.”

Muskegon guard Alyza Winston drives past Reeths-Puffer’s Meghan Smith during the Big Reds’ win on January 19. Photo/Joe Lane

For Muskegon Coach Rodney Walker, Winston’s addition has been icing on an already good cake.

The Big Reds had high hopes coming into the 2017-18 season, after posting a 12-10 record last year and coming within a point of upsetting Winston and Mona Shores in the Class A district semifinals.

Walker returned several key players from that team – senior Daz’sha Day, junior Diynasti Dowell and sophomore Da’Shonna Day, among others – and knew he would have a winning combination.

Muskegon rolled to a 6-2 record through its first eight games, with its only losses coming against 2017 state runner-up East Kentwood and East Grand Rapids.

Leading the way has been Daz’sha Day, who broke through as a junior last season by averaging 13.9 points per game and earning O-K Black All-Conference honors.

This year Day is averaging 11.5 points per game, and will benefit by having Winston take over some of the scoring load.

“She’s a three-year starter,” Coach Walker said about Day. “She really understands our system. Her job, before Alyza, was to run our team overall in offensive sets and defensive sets.

“We look to her for leadership, and she’s an all-around player who’s doing a great job.”

Day, who often gets to the basket in transition for her points, said she can also hit from the outside.

“Just getting to the basket,” Day said about her offensive philosophy. “But I’m also able to shoot the three-point shot and mid-range shot.”

Scoring opportunities have become more frequent with the addition of Winston, according to Day.

Daz’sha Day drives the baseline for Muskegon against East Kentwood on Dec. 1. Photo/Leo Valdez

“She opens up a lot of space for the whole team,” Day said. “She pushes it and looks for the open player to knock down shots.”

Winston has been playing like she never skipped a beat. In her three games with the Big Reds, she’s averaging 26 points and eight assists.

That does not surprise Walker.

“Before the season started we knew we’d be a good team overall, and I think we proved that,” the coach said. “By adding her we knew it would put us over the top as a championship level team in the state, because of her ability to score and play defense, which is ridiculous. Her ability to get down the floor and get layups gives us an edge.”

“I feel like I’ve excelled a lot,” said Winston, who is currently ranked No. 12 nationally at the point guard position in the 2019 ESPN recruiting class. “I put in a lot of work these past months, knowing the season was coming up. I think that I’m going to have my best season yet this year.”

Winston admits it was hard sitting out the first eight games and not being able to help her new teammates.

“It was really tough,” she said. “In the two games we lost, it hurt seeing where I could’ve helped. It was just really hard because of how much basketball means to me.”

Winston has already scored 889 points in her varsity career, and will likely hit the 1,000-point mark in her next few games, which is special for a junior.

“It means a lot,” Winston said. “It’s a really big accomplishment, and something I’ve wanted. Sitting out eight games made it harder because I would’ve hit it a lot sooner.”

While reaching personal goals is nice, Winston and the Big Reds have big team goals in mind. They don’t mind admitting that they would like to play for a Class A state championship in March.

“Last summer we set the goal to win a state title,” Coach Walker said. “But we’re going to take it one game at a time, because no game is an easy game. We’re hell-bent on winning a state title this year.”

In order to win a state title, Day said the Big Reds will need to continue to push hard to improve, and avoid having their performance dragged down by the play of inferior opponents.

“It’s hard,” Day said about team practices. “We run a lot to get in shape, so we can beat teams up and down the floor.

“But we just have to make sure that we come out and play our game. We don’t want to play down to their level.”

Winston, who played on Mona Shores teams that also had lofty state dreams, said she doesn’t feel any added pressure.

“It’s really not pressure, it’s like we’re working hard to get where we want to go,” Winston said. “I’ve been in this position before, so pressure really doesn’t bother me.”