By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON — The naysayers predicted that Muskegon’s girls basketball team would fall off the map this season, due to the departures of All-State point guard Alyza Winston and former head coach Rodney Walker, who led the team to the Division 1 state semifinals.

They were clearly wrong. The Big Reds have had a few ups and downs this winter, to be sure, but they’re certainly not going away.

Although the team started with a 1-4 record, new head coach Paris Thomas has helped right the ship, with her squad winning six of its last seven games, including an eye-opening 73-63 victory on the road last Friday against Reeths-Puffer, one of the top teams in the area.

Muskegon’s DeShonna Day goes for a steal during the Big Reds’ win over Reeths-Puffer. Photo/Joe Lane

It was also a victory over Walker, who agreed to take the vacant coaching job at Reeths-Puffer just a few weeks before the season was set to start.

Although they currently sit with a 6-5 record, a second-half surge this season isn’t out of the question for a group of Big Reds who are determined to prove themselves.

“We scheduled some really tough competition early in the season, and while we expected to win, we took some lumps,” said Thomas, a 2008 Muskegon graduate who served as Walker’s assistant coach last season. “It’s a young group learning a new system under a new coach, so there were going to be some challenges. But we’re learning and growing on a daily basis. I’m hoping (the tough schedule) makes us battle-tested and ready for March.”

What’s helped the Big Reds remain a dangerous team is a core of four players who gained valuable experience during last season’s program-best run to the state semifinals.

The leader, according to Thomas, is also the player with the most outgoing personality – 5-foot-10 guard/forward DeShonna Day. Known for her infectious laugh, Day has shown a serious all-around game this winter, averaging 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals per game.

Kailyn Nash. Photo/Leo Valdez

Day said she was thrilled when she learned Thomas was chosen as Walker’s replacement.

“I didn’t want just anyone from the outside taking over, because it’s my last year,” Day said. “It’s nice that she already had that bond with our team.”

Day said one of the few major changes under Thomas is that the team works a lot more on boxing out and rebounding. She also said the team laughs a lot more, on the court and off.

Thomas has challenged Day to strive for greatness, which will be a key if the Big Reds are to match last year’s accomplishments.

“She has the talent to be a Miss Basketball contender, but she’s gotta bring it on the court,” Thomas said. “I’ve told her that she’s too modest out there. I’d like to see her be more aggressive in attacking because I know she has the capability to take over games.”

JaKayla Anderson. Photo/Leo Valdez

Coaches at the college level have recognized Day’s potential as well. She made a quick decision on her future late in the summer, when shecommitted on the spot during her visit to Ferris State University. She said she played pickup games with current Ferris players, as well as another future recruit, Reeths-Puffer standout Lauren Ross.

“I just fell in love with everything there,” Day said. “The players, the coaches, everything. I just decided to commit right then and there.”

Day will become the third in her family to play college basketball. Her older brother, Marquis Childers, played at Olivet College, while her older sister, Daz’Sha Day, is currently on the roster at Aquinas College. Her youngest brother, David, is a freshman in high school.

“We’re a competitive family,” DeShonna said with a laugh. “I’ve won a couple times (in 1-on-1 games), but I’m probably losing all the time now.”

While Day prides herself on her inside-outside game, the Big Reds have received a boost in the paint from 5-9 junior Kailyn Nash.

“She’s been huge for us,” Day said of her teammate. “She’s grabbing the most rebounds, getting blocks and really being aggressive.”

“Kailyn is like having another coach on the floor,” Thomas said. “She’ll come up to me and tell me what she’s seeing, and it’s like ‘how are you thinking that far ahead?’ She understands every aspect of the game.”

Day said the top guards are senior JaKayla Anderson, who is the team’s defensive wizard, as well as sharp-shooting senior Makiya Sones and sophomore McKynna Sims, who excels in executing Thomas’ preferred up-tempo style offense.

Putting all the pieces together has Thomas convinced the Big Reds have an opportunity to make another deep run in the state tournament. . But, she added, it will require the players to do the little things well.

“We want to push the ball in transition, but we also have to keep stopping the ball in our transition defense,” the coach said. “We want to hold teams to 40 points or less. We hang our hats on not letting teams score. And to be successful, we still need to do the little things, like sharing the ball, talking, boxing out.

“We can’t think that relying on our athleticism is going to automatically get us a win. We gotta do the little things as well.”