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New roles for Lady Devils

Tiara Dunson wasn't Merced College's top scoring option a season ago. The freshman probably wasn't even in the top five.

It wasn't that Dunson lacked the ability to score. With her, it always seemed to be more of a confidence issue.

At times, the 5-foot-8 guard seemed to reluctant to let the ball fly.

Her 178 shot attempts ranked seventh on the team, something Lady Devils coach Allen Huddleston knew couldn't be repeated.

"I sat Tiara, Tanisha (White) and Tineka (Spencer) down over the summer and told them they were going to be the keys to our success," Huddleston said.

"With Kenyatta Harper having to sit out this year, we had a big hole to fill both offensively and in our rebounds.

"We spent a lot of time in the offseason working on Tiara's shot and building that confidence."

Based on MC's early returns, Dunson's hard work is paying off.

She leads the team with 13.2 points per game and 6.4 rebounds, more than doubling her averages from a season ago.

"For me, I think it was always a mental issue," Dunson said. "I always had the ability to score, but I lacked the confidence.

"The toughest thing to replace with Kenyatta is the 11 rebounds she averaged.

"She's so aggressive. I've had to work really hard on improving my rebounding."

The burden doesn't fall entirely on Dunson's shoulders.

Returning sophomores White, Spencer, Anna Yardy and Patricia O'Neill have all made major strides.

White and Spencer have particularly impressed.

White earned MVP honors after helping MC win the Shasta Classic title and Spencer has given the Lady Devils the low-post presence it lacked a season ago.

"We've had to step up our leadership and become more vocal," White said of her new role. "I think I've grown a lot as a player and I'm trying to lead by example.

"Tineka has basically become the player (Huddleston) recruited.

"She was aggressive and used to dominate in high school, and she's starting to do that now."

Huddleston also added some extra leadership this season with redshirt sophomores Keyona McKibbens and Ashley Willison returning from injury.

Willison led the Lady Devils in 3-point shooting two years ago and McKibbens is a dynamic point guard that makes the MC offense go.

"Getting both of them back has been huge for us, because they are both so smart. It's like having two extra coaches on the floor," Huddleston said.

The MC coach has also compiled an intriguing freshman class to give his team depth and versatility.

Locally, Huddleston has added almost half of Livingston's "Magnificent Seven" in Olivia Andam, Denise Pulido and Nina Garcia, as well as former Merced star Alyssa Wright.

Huddleston also secured a bonafide scorer from Madera in guard Aariona Breazell.

In addition to his recruiting class, redshirt freshman Laura Robinson joins the roster.

The former Mariposa star has teamed up with Spencer to give MC an effective 1-2 punch in the post.

Despite going 16 players deep, Huddleston believes the bulk of his squad is going to see regular playing time.

"I can see us getting 12 to 15 kids in every game," Huddleston said. "All our kids bring something to the game, and I'm not afraid to put them in if the situation calls for it."

Key Returners: Tiara Dunson, Tanisha White, Tineka Spencer, Keyonna McKibbens, Ashley Willison

New Faces: Aariona Breazell, Alyssa Wright, Denise Pulido, Olivia Andam, Nina Garcia

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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