MINERAL WELLS —
There is quite a nice story brewing this winter at the Mineral Wells High School gym.
The surprise is, believe it or not, the Mineral Wells Lady Rams basketball team.
The Lady Rams have made a complete 180-degree turnaround from last season despite the addition of a new coach – which comes with it a new system – and four new starters who are in their respective first years in the MWHS program. The MWHS ladies are 16-5 and have won two tournaments as they head into their district opener on Friday.
Last year, due to major personnel defection (transfers and players who decided to leave the team) and injuries, the Lady Rams finished with just three district wins and not many than that more for the entire season.
But a new coach was hired in Edward Shelstead, who came from basketball-crazy Krum, and he brought along with him his two talented daughters, Kennedy and Sydney, the latter who is 6-1 and a scoring and rebounding machine.
The addition of Sydney, who averages double figures in points and rebounds per game, has freed up hot-shot shooter Niya Benavides, who no longer has to deal with the double and triple teams that she did last year when she was the only true varsity player to start after other starters left the team.
Now, if teams want to double Sydney inside, they leave Niya wide open outside. Many of us who have had the privilege of watching Niya for the past three years knows what happens when she is left alone – nothing-but-net three-pointer buckets.
Consequently, when teams stretch their defense to the perimeter to try and handle Niya, Sydney gets one-on-one coverage down low, which usually results in an easy two points.
In other words, the current Lady Rams are a tough team to defend.
However, a team does not make a complete turnaround from a single-digit win season to 16-5 just because of two great players. But in this reporter’s observation there are two other huge factors at work here that have translated in team success.
There is no question the Sydney/Niya combination has played the largest role in the 16 wins. But how does a team with four new starters – and all new to the program – develop enough continuity and chemistry to make such a drastic and almost unthinkable turnaround?
Before that question is answered let’s review the four new starters.
The first is at the most important position on the team: point guard. The “quarterback” of the Lady Rams is freshman Natalie Ragland, a polished player who in know way resembles a freshman. She showed poise in her very first varsity game at Lipan and has improved in each game since.
“Our freshman point guard (Ragland), in the last 6-7 games has really settled in,” Shelstead said. “Sometimes I would like Natalie to look for her own offense a little more, but my gosh, you have to give her a ton of credit with the way she is running the floor.
“At times, I felt she was the leader of our team despite the fact that Niya and Sydney are seniors and team captains.
“But there have been times when Natalie steps up and leads us, and I am very proud of her. Natalie is always locked in, and she listens. She is always focused and knows what to do, and she is making great progress.
“As Natalie has improved, so too has our defense. As we have had better offensive possessions, it has allowed us to shift our defenses, and I think that has been part of our success of late.”
A second newcomer to the program is junior guard Bethany Allen, one of the best female athletes in the school but who had never put on a basketball uniform at MWHS.
“BB” was an all-state shortstop in just her sophomore season last year, and was a first-team, all-district volleyball player this past fall at the libero position.
I had heard she was an open gym legend, and this year she decided to take her talents to the varsity squad. Allen and classmate Courtney Peña are a pair of shut-down defenders on the perimeter and another reason this team is winning.
“Bethany has improved each game, and she was selected all-tournament last weekend at the Burkburnett tournament,” Shelstead said. “Coaches were not asked to turn in all-tournament selections from their teams, and at this tournament a committee chose the all-tournament team.
“Her being chosen all-tournament validates what I thought of her play.
“Clearly, she has stepped up, and her progression is a result of her accepting who she is and understanding – without me telling her – what she has to do to help this particular group be successful.
“Bethany always works hard and gives me her best, and defensively she is quick, tenacious and never backs down. Offensively, she gets the ball where it needs to go, and I can also use her in the post to set screens. She does a lot of little things that most spectators do not notice. I can rely on her.”
Of course, the other two starters new to the program are Sydney and Kennedy, transfers who came to MWHS when their dad accepted the job as head coach.
Shelstead has told me on more than one occasion how much fun he is having coaching his daughters at the high school varsity level, and with a talent like Sydney one can see why.
But “little sister” Kennedy is also a player. She is 5-11, aggressive, athletic, and not only can do all the things a good post can do inside, but can shoot threes and provide outstanding perimeter defense.
“There is so much potential in Kennedy,” Ed Shelstead said. “She is long, can move, and prior to Christmas break there were about five games in a row where she really stepped up and was attacking the basket.
“Kennedy is a shooter, but we have plenty of those on this team. What we didn’t have was someone who can attack the basket and finish. She attacks the basket well, and she is still working on finishing.
“So for us, her role is to be the irritating perimeter defender with long arms who also supplements our offense inside and outside. She does a lot of things for us. The sky is the limit for Kennedy.”
Shelstead feels Peña, Allen, Ragland and his daughter Kennedy play just as important of roles as “The Big Two” of Niya and Sydney.
“Kennedy, Courtney, Natalie and BB (Allen) may be the most important players on our team,” Shelstead said. “Important meaning when they play their roles, and they are effective at what I ask them to do, we are tough.
“Sydney and Niya are going to give what they have to give and it is pretty darn consistent – they both will get double figures in points each game and Niya can stretch the defense with her outside shooting which opens it up down low for Sydney.
“When that is going on the other four – BB, Natalie, Courtney and Kennedy – their play is magnified much more.
“If those four can see themselves as very important at this time, the sky is the limit THIS season for our team.”
Shelstead will only carry a roster of nine players into district play, and he only wants players who can help the varsity as role players. He has three such players in junior post Ashlynn Robinson, who was on varsity last year before a season-ending knee injury, and sophomore guards Pamela Hopkins and Riley Bullock.
“Ashlynn, Pam and Riley have proved in non-district play that they belong on varsity,” Shelstead said. “I wish I could give Pam and Riley more playing time, but they are here for two main reasons. First off, I knew both had awesome work ethics, and that hasn’t changed.
“Pamela is a slasher, and she has had a couple of very good games that has made me wonder if I should be playing her a little bit more. Riley is very smart, and she is Natalie’s backup. But because Natalie has played so well, Riley has gotten less minutes.
“Second, when I put them out there they know what they are supposed to do, they work hard, and they don’t deviate from the plan. Pam throws her body around and fights hard, and that is what I have always liked about her.
“Ashlynn also fits a nice role for us, and she is a fighter who rebounds well and defends post players well. She comes in and allows Sydney to get off the post, and that also gives both Sydney and Niya break down low.”
So, now I will finally get to answering “the question” of how this team has turned it around and gone from an afterthought to a solid post-season contender.
First and foremost, the players. The players who want to be here, and who accept, understand and live their roles. They worked hard to gain a certain amount of chemistry, and it has paid off. They are getting better each game, and they realize their potential.
Second, the coach. He got everyone on the same page, and he got the girls to believe in their specific roles.
The blend of talent and work ethic on this team has translated into non-district success, and I see no reason why it won’t continue as we approach district play on Friday at Castleberry.
I am really looking forward to the 6-3A season, and beyond.