The 2009 Pontotoc Conference Tournament was the best of times for the Allen Lady Mustangs.
Seeded No. 4 in the eight-team field, Allen used impressive defensive efforts against Tupelo and Vanoss to claim the tournament title, then the Lady Mustangs used that performance as a springboard to their first-ever sweep of the tournament and conference championships.
But despite an 18-8 overall record that included enough post-holiday victories to sew up the conference crown, Allen never regained its pre-Christmas magic, and an earlier-than-expected playoff exit left coach Jeremy Strong and his veteran club feeling they had some unfinished business entering the 2010-2011 campaign.
“We peaked early (last season) and dropped off,” Strong recalled. “We just never quite came back to where we needed to be after the conference tournament.
“We thought it was going to be easy the rest of the way, but in this conference there are no easy games,” he added. “It didn’t go to our heads, but we just peaked way too early and couldn’t get back to that point.”
Strong — who had no seniors on the team last season — returned his roster virtually intact, and he said he has made a few early adjustments to guard against another late-season swoon.
“We’ve done a couple of different things — practice habits and things like that — but nothing major,” he explained. “We were practicing for basically a month and a half before we played our first game (Tuesday at home against Calvin). We got to sit around and watch everybody else play for a month before we got to play an actual game.”
And since the season began, the Lady Mustangs have been making up for lost time. They have crushed three straight opponents — Weleetka and conference opponents Calvin and Asher — and will be seeded No. 1 in the conference tournament for the first time in recent memory.
“We’re a mature team, and our team chemistry is great,” Strong said. “This team gets along better than any team we’ve had before, and they seem to get along better every week. It’s an enjoyable atmosphere.
“These girls have been here awhile now, and expectations are high with them,” he said. “It just comes down to making shots.”
Through three games, Allen’s offense has been spread throughout the roster. The Lady Mustangs have had a different scoring leader in each game, and they scored 68 points against Asher Friday despite getting just three points from last season’s leading scorer, Jordyn Mills.
Strong said his team’s only question mark right now is in the paint.
“I really think if we can establish an inside presence that’s going to help a lot,” he noted. “We need to establish something inside, because we have some girls who can score from the outside. We’re a really guard-oriented team. We’ll play three or four guards at a time, and we might play five sometimes. Since we don’t have a true post player, we have to be creative in the way we do things.
“(Junior) Amber (Coody) is kind of a forward-slash-guard, and she’s getting better inside, but we need somebody else who can score inside,” Strong said. “(Sophomore) Beyla Skelton has the potential to be that girl.”
Skelton — whose sister, Lorissa, was a four-year starter for the Lady Mustangs and the team’s leading rebounder as a junior and senior — scored a season-high 10 points against Asher Friday, and Strong said the slender sophomore has just started to tap her potential.
“(Skelton) has a chance to be a really good player,” Strong said. “I’m always on her about getting tough and getting strong. She can play the post, but she can also step out and shoot and I’ll give her the freedom to do that.”
Coody, who made a big splash before her freshman season was cut short by a serious knee injury, also battled through some injury issues as a sophomore. A strong rebounder who is also capable of scoring off the dribble and shooting the 3, Coody figures to be a key to whatever success the Lady Mustangs enjoy the rest of the way.
“Amber is a great player,” Strong said. “She rebounds, she’s physical inside, she can take it outside. Conditioning will play a factor, and if she can stay at that level it’s going to help her and the team. She’s a force. When she wants to get after it, I will put her up against anybody.”
Mills, whose sister, Danli, was a teammate of Lorissa Skelton’s at Allen, is one of several long-range shooting threats on the roster and part of a guard rotation that figures to be the team’s strength all season.
“She’s matured a lot, and she knows the game,” Strong said of Mills, whose father, Greg, is the current Allen boys coach and the former girls coach. “She and all the seniors know what I expect.
“Jordyn has been there four years now, and it helps to have people out there you don’t have to tell every single thing to,” he added. “They’re very mature players. Not a lot rattles them, and it’s good to have those kind of kids.”
Point guard Carley Collard had a solid junior campaign and was one the key players in Allen’s run to the conference tournament title last year.
“She’s my point guard, so I expect a lot out of her,” Strong said of Collard. “She has to run the team. Whether it’s fair or not, I’m on her more than anybody, because if it’s not going right it usually comes back to her. She had a good year last year, and I expect her to have as good a year this year, if not better.”
Allen’s other senior starter is Brandi Horton, who scored a team-high 15 points in Friday’s win, and 5-6 junior forward Jocee Bailey has also been starting, with Amber Coody, senior Chelsea Coody and juniors Aussie Riddle and Marissa Prentice seeing a lot of playing time off the bench.
“Jocee does a lot of the dirty work for us, and we need that,” Strong noted. “I wanted to get Beyla in the flow of the game quick and get her over being nervous, so Amber has been coming off the bench.
“It’s all about quality minutes,” he added. “I’m not big on who starts and who doesn’t start. It’s more about who finishes.”
Strong said his team’s defensive performance at last year’s conference tournament was no fluke, adding that the Lady Mustangs’ work ethic on defense could determine the success of their season.
“We work hard defensively every day in practice,” he explained. “If you can’t play defense, it doesn’t matter if you can shoot. If you have an off night shooting, you have to rely on something else, and defense is one thing we can control.
“This team works really hard, and they take a lot of pride in their defense,” Strong added. “It’s still early, but they’re not afraid to work and they’ll do whatever I ask.”
Strong said defending the Pontotoc Tournament title as a No. 1 seed will put some added pressure on his club this week.
“It’s an honor to be voted that No. 1 seed, but it also puts a huge target on your back,” he said. “The No. 1 seed could have gone to a couple of teams and we just happened to end up with it. We’re going to play just as hard whether we’re a No. 1 seed or a No. 8 seed.”
With 8-0 Stonewall (the No. 2 seed) and 6-2 Tupelo (seeded No. 3) waiting on the other side of the bracket, the Lady Mustangs figure to find a quality opponent waiting for them in Saturday’s championship game if they can survive the first two rounds. Strong said the depth of the girls teams in Class A in the area this season should also ensure a pretty good backyard brawl when the playoffs begin.
“It’s going to be tough — just this area and Pontotoc County alone is tough,” he said. “You throw in New Lima, Moss and Sasakwa into the mix, and you have the makings of a pretty good area tournament.”