MINERAL WELLS —
By TONY EIERDAM
What has become quite a story this season is the turnaround of the Mineral Wells Lady Rams basketball team.
The Lady Rams, once forgotten after last season’s three-win district campaign, are all of a sudden – thanks to a 16-5 record – contenders for the District 6-3A championship in 2013.
The Lady Rams will open 6-3A play at 6:30 p.m. today at River Oaks Castleberry.
District opponents will see several new faces wearing the red and black, which include four new starters – Sydney Shelstead, Bethany Allen, Kennedy Shelstead and Natalie Ragland – which will join returning starter Niya Benavides, along with a new coach.
Sydney Shelstead and Benavides are averaging double figures in scoring each game, with Shelstead also pulling down a double-digit average in rebounds per contest.
Junior returning varsity members Courtney Peña and Ashlynn Robinson, and new sophomore guard varsity members Pamela Hopkins and Riley Bullock, round out the nine-player roster.
Lady Rams first-year head coach Ed Shelstead has seen the team grow in non-district play, which includes a pair of tournament championships.
“I think our continuity is doing well, but our chemistry is still developing,” Ed Shelstead said. “But as of the last six or seven games I have seen our chemistry as a team grow.
“The girls are improving on knowing what each other are going to do. When you have multiple people together who haven’t even been in the program including four starters – a new player to high school basketball (Bethany Allen), a freshman (Natalie Ragland and two transfers (Shelstead’s daughters, Sydney and Kennedy) – it is a learning process.
“But as of late, if I were to asses where we are at, coming out of last weekend’s tournament (at Burkburnett, where the Lady Rams took the title), I would think our strength is the fact that we did come together as a team and we started using everyone to score instead of relying on Sydney and Niya.
“I felt like early on all we were trying to do was feed the ball to Sydney and Niya and sit back and watch those two play. But now everyone has started functioning more as a complete unit.”
The coach has said all season long that rebounding and defense wins games. He has been focusing on defense during non-district play, and is satisfied with the results.
“One of my goals that I wanted the team to accomplish at this point was to be able to change defenses on the fly,” Shelstead said. “We are getting better at that, and frankly, in order to be able to move your defenses is you have to be able to score so you are not always just running back on defense (after a missed shot or turnover).
“I think were are doing OK defensively, but I also think we are coming together offensively. The girls are more comfortable with each other, and that’s the whole chemistry factor.”
Although each member of the team is growing and buying in to their respective roles, the bulk of the scoring load will fall on Benavides – the Lady Rams’ leading scorer last year and a two-time, all-district first-team player – and Sydney Shelstead, an aggressive, physical 6-1 post.
“Teams win based on defense and rebounding, and our rebounding is getting better,” Shelstead said. “And as our defense gets better so too does our team.
“But offensively, having Niya and Sydney is a blessing. Niya stretches the defense with her consistent outside shooting, and if I was Sydney I would hug Niya every day.
“But it is the same the other way. They really enjoy and compliment each other, and as a coach it is fun to coach players the caliber of Niya and Sydney.
“I have these two weapons, and it allows me to come up with different offenses that fit their skills.
“It is awesome that Sydney can shoot the three and also post up, and Niya is also pretty darn good on the block. Niya has a nice turnaround jump shot.”
It is no secret that Kennedale, ranked No. 2 in Class 3A, is the District 6-3A favorite.
However, Shelstead expects his team and salty Springtown to give the Lady Kats a run for their money.
Kennedale is lead by guards Autumn Williams and McKinley Bostad. Both, Shelstead said, are solid Division I college prospects.
“McKinley has played with Sydney in summer ball the last two years, and she is a special player,” Shelstead said. “Autumn also played with Sydney one summer, and both Autumn and McKinley are very special athletes, two Division I guards.
“Autumn has got D-I athleticism, and McKinley has a great all-around game. Kennedale, no question, is the team to beat. But I also think Springtown is going to be dangerous. Springtown is physical, aggressive, and they are going to give us a fight.
“I think Kennedale should be considered the favorite, and then you have us and Springtown. Out of those three, I think Kennedale has the clear advantage right now.
“They have experience and the athletes, have been there before, so it will be up to us and Springtown to knock them off.
“It will be a dogfight for first, second and third in our district. I hope we are ready for it.
“If we can stay focused on who we are, execute what we do well and not worry about Springtown and Kennedale, we will have a shot. But we will have to play well.”
But first the Lady Rams will deal with Castleberry today before returning home on Tuesday to play Lake Worth.
Now the games count.