As the coach of the only local representative and one of the two unranked teams in this year’s Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic, Byng’s Matt Fike knows his veteran club has something to prove. But Fike said the Lady Pirates will also have two other things — confidence and an opportunity — when they they take the floor against Class A No. 2 Calumet Monday evening in the third of four games on the tournament’s opening day.
“This is a great team for (Byng) to have in this tournament,” said Fike, whose fourth Byng squad entered the Christmas break at 6-2. “It’s not an invitation you say ‘no’ to, no matter what you have, but I think we’re in a position where we go to this tournament and focus on competing as hard as we can and playing as well as we can and making ourselves better. There’s no doubt we’ll be a better team the second half of this season because we’re going to this tournament.
“I like that our seniors get to go out and play in this kind of prestigious tournament,” he added. “Our girls have been watching this tournament since they were little girls and wondering what it would be like to compete in it. Just being able to see them have that experience makes it a great tournament.”
Named for former Byng coaching great Bertha Frank Teague, the Mid-America has drawn defending champion Anadarko (No. 6 in Class 4A) and five teams ranked in the top three in their respective classes for its 34th renewal. Fike said a strong showing against a talented Calumet squad and solid performances over the final two days of the tournament would confirm the progress he believes his program has made since the start of the 2009-2010 campaign.
“Even though we’re still a relatively young team, I felt like the biggest thing we needed to do this season was to pick up where we left off last year,” said Fike, who is coming off his first winning season (14-10) at Byng. “I felt like last year we kind of turned the corner.
“We took our lumps my first year, the second year we found a way to be competitive but couldn’t close out games, and last year we won some games we had lost the first two years,” he said. “I still feel like we’re very much a work in progress — we still have a lot to do to keep improving.”
Fike said that in Calumet, his club will be facing an atypical small-school team.
“I know Calumet is really, really good,” Fike noted. “They rely pretty heavily on pressure defense, they are really active defensively and offensively, and they rebound well at both ends of the floor.
“Jordan Tech is a six-foot guard who plays out on the wing, and she’s one of the best 3-point shooters I’ve seen since I’ve been back in Oklahoma,” he said. “The other player I’m concerned about is Emily Eaton. She’s kind of a ‘glue’ kid — she does a little bit of everything. They have several great players, and they’ve good depth. They’re very athletic. In this tournament you just throw the classifications out the window. There are no weak teams.”
The Lady Pirates have played half of their games without center Presli Manuel, a 5-8 senior who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a junior and who was off to a good start this season before she aggravated a knee injury earlier this month. Fike — whose club has gone 3-1 since Manuel’s injury (with the only loss in overtime to unbeaten Konawa in the championship game at the Southeastern Shootout in McAlester) — said he might not know her status for the Mid-America until Monday.
“She practiced a little bit (last) Monday and a little more Tuesday, and Tuesday was the first time she had gone through a whole practice since her injury,” he explained. “The concern with Presli is that you don’t want to re-aggravate that knee injury, and at the same time you don’t want her to lose that level of fitness she had before she got hurt.
“It’s huge to get her back for a couple of reasons,” Fike said. “One, it’s almost 15 points a game, and she is our best scorer in the block. When people have to respect that, it opens things up for our guards that we haven’t gotten in our last few games. When Presli is in the game, teams double against us down low, and that opens up the floor for everybody else.”
Without Manuel in the lineup, the Lady Pirates beat Tecumseh (No. 20 in 4A) at home on Dec. 14, and, although they struggled to get past McLoud on the road three days later, Fike said his club has shown both its depth and its resilience over the past four games.
“The girls who have played while Presli has been out have done a great job,” he said. “Every time we’ve asked them to do something a little different, they’ve embraced the opportunity and they’ve responded really well to it.
“There is reason to be optimistic about the rest of the season, because we have some depth and kids have stepped up and performed, but at the end of the day I would like to have all the bullets in our gun,” Fike said. “Presli is an important part of that, but as much as we would like to have her for the Mid-America, the priority is to get her healthy.”
With Manuel sidelined, Byng’s scoring load has fallen on the shoulders of seniors Dayton Hendricks and Brenna Williamson, junior Stormy Sayre and sophomores Raetchel Gray and Ashton Johnson. Each of them has scored in double figures at least once over the past four games, and Fike said the Lady Pirates’ diversity makes them a tough match-up.
“We feel pretty good about where we are,” he said. “We feel like there are some areas where we need to improve, but I feel like we’ve rebounded the ball pretty well and shot the ball pretty well. I still think we can execute better offensively, especially against pressure. That’s been a major focus of our practices.
“We’ve competed hard, and defensively we’ve been pretty good,” Fike added. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well we’ve rebounded with Presli out of the lineup.”
Hendricks, who hit eight straight free throws in the fourth quarter to seal the victory over Tecumseh, is a 5-8 forward who can score both inside and outside.
“Dayton’s going to be important to us because of what she brings offensively,” Fike said. “She’s been pretty good from behind the 3-point line and she’s been great at the free throw line.”
Williamson, a scrappy 5-6 guard, has been a sparkplug for a Byng defense that has made huge strides since last season.
“Brenna has to guard the other team’s best guard every single night, and that’s a big responsibility,” Fike explained. “She’s fast enough and athletic enough that she excels in that role. Brenna gives us the ability to sub in on (alternating) offensive and defensive possessions.”
The 5-9 Sayre is another versatile performer who has contributed at both ends of the floor early in her first season as a full-time starter.
“Stormy has been kind of interchangeable,” Fike noted. “She’s done a little bit of everything for us. Offensively, Stormy brings a lot of things to the table — she’s tall but she can step out and shoot the 3 and she’s good at the foul line.”
Gray (5-7) had a breakout freshman campaign and, although she isn’t a prototypical point guard, she has settled nicely into that role. Fike said she will be especially important Monday against Calumet’s pressure defense.
“For a sophomore, we put a lot of stuff on her,” Fike said of Gray, who is averaging in double figures this season and pulled down a career-high 13 rebounds in the win over Tecumseh. “In a perfect world, you would like to bring a sophomore off the bench, but Raetchel is kind of a special player, and she’s not afraid of the challenge.
“She’s important because she has the ball in her hands so much and she’s our decision-maker,” he added. “Calumet likes to score off their defense, so we’re going to have to take care of the ball.”
Johnson, who scored a career-high 15 points against Tecumseh, has evolved into the area’s best sixth man this season. She is the leader of a bench that has been a huge weapon for the Lady Pirates so far in 2010.
“Ashton has played really well off the bench, and we needed that spark,” Fike said. “We’re going to need a lot of that spark all three days (this) week.”
Two other juniors — 5-6 Rachel Wainscott and 5-9 Mahgen Boissenin — have also given the Lady Pirates valuable minutes, with Wainscott spelling the Byng guards and Boissennin helping to compensate for the absence of Manuel in the post.
“Rachel is a good player in transition, physically she’s very strong, and she’s a good athlete,” Fike said of Wainscott. “As Rachel gets more confidence, she’s going to be a pretty solid player.
“Mahgen has been important to us since Presli’s been hurt,” he explained. “She’s the best pure athlete in our gym, and she brings a lot of energy to practice and to games. We need her to score a little more consistently, but she’s working hard to improve that. She’s also a kid who can guard the other team’s best guard because she’s so fast and guard the post because she’s so athletic.”
Fike said his team’s early-season success is a tribute to the work ethic of his players.
“A lot of these girls have put in some time on their own and have worked hard to make themselves better players,” he said. “It’s rewarding to know that when you unlock the gym there are going to be kids here ready to work.”