Wellston coach Kyle Williams is approaching his young team’s showdown with top seed Cache Monday in the opening round of the 34th Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic almost like a trip to the Academy Awards. He might not win, but it’s an honor just to be nominated.
“Somebody had to play them,” Williams — a former head coach at Cache — said of the Lady Bulldogs, the defending Class 4A state champions and ranked No. 1 again heading into the Mid-America. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be me, but I figured it probably would be. I coached at Cache for five years. They’re extremely athletic, they’re big and they shoot the ball well. In my opinion, they could compete at any level in the state. We’re just going to try to compete and slow them down.
“It’s an honor for us to get to come play in the tournament,” he added. “We’re young, and we knew it was going to be a tough tournament for us, but we couldn’t pass it up. We’re going to use it as a stepping stone and a building block. We’re going to treat it like a state tournament. It’s a testament to how the program has evolved the last few years.”
The game between Cache — one of two No. 1 teams and one of five in the eight-team field ranked in the top five in their class — and the unranked Lady Tigers is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Monday at East Central University’s Kerr Activities Center and will be the finale of the Mid-America’s opening-day schedule.
Shawnee (No. 5 in 5A) and defending tournament champion Anadarko (No. 6 in 4A) will kick things off at 3 p.m. with one of two opening-round games involving undefeated top-10 teams. Bethel (No. 2 in Class 3A) and Cyril (No. 1 in Class A) will will meet in another battle of unbeatens at 4:30 p.m., then unranked Byng will face Class A No. 2 Calumet at 6:30 p.m. to begin the evening session.
Semifinal games will begin at 6:30 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, and the championship game will be played at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Williams is in his fifth year as coach of the Lady Tigers, and after winning just eight games in his first season at Wellston, he has seen his teams average 19 wins the last three years and reach the area tournament the last two. Coming off a 20-6 campaign, though, he faced a major rebuilding job this season.
“We averaged 42 points a game last year, and we lost 35 points with my three seniors that graduated,” he explained. “We just got Micaele Danker (a two-year starter at guard who averages about 10 points per game) back from an ACL injury. She’s just starting to get comfortable with that, but she’s shooting the ball well and being a leader on the floor for us.
“(Junior) Kelsey Humphrey cracked her kneecap (during preseason drills in October) and hasn’t played so far,” he said. “She was a 33-percent 3-point shooter last year, so we’re missing her.”
With injuries among his veteran players a concern and no seniors on his roster, Williams has turned to juniors Brandy Hutton (a two-year starter) and Alaney O’Day and a promising group of underclassmen. He said he has used five sophomores — including point guard Mariah Fredman — “a lot”, and his leading scorer so far this season is freshman sixth man Lakota Thompson.
“We’ve been using her off the bench, and she’s averaging about 10 points a game,” Williams said of the 5-11 Thompson. “She’s really come a long way from the summer to now. She’s giving us some offense, and that’s something we’ve been needing.”
Williams said Fredman has been solid in her first season as the team’s point guard.
“She’s doing a good job,” he said. “She’s learning on the run. She’s made mistakes, but she’s been real coachable and she’s been getting better every game.
“She’s doing a good job being a distributor,” Williams added, “but she can score, and I’m looking for her to score more.”
Although Hutton has “started slow” offensively, Williams said she will be a key for the Lady Tigers this week.
“She can be a scorer for us,” he said. “She’s wide and strong and can score from anywhere on the floor.”
O’Day, meanwhile, is the leader of the Wellston defense.
“She’s athletic and long,” Williams said. “Primarily she’s our defensive stopper.”
Sophomores Amanda Jones (“a part-time starter”), Chelsea Colson (“ a good defender with a good mid-range jump shot”) and guard Maci McClain (“my best on-ball defender”) round out the Wellston rotation.
“With a young team, I’m happy with where we are,” Williams noted. “We’ve been in every game.”
Despite the task facing his young club Monday, Williams said he is looking forward to the Mid-America and to renewing some old acquaintances this week.
“I was an assistant under (Cache coach) Brett (Sanders) at Anadarko, I coached at Cache, and I grew up in Cyril,” he explained. “I’m going to know a lot of people there.”
MID-AMERICA NOTES: Vision Bank is the primary corporate sponsor for the Mid-America again this year and will be the co-host for Monday’s traditional pre-tournament luncheon for the teams and their coaches at the Ada Elks Lodge...Tickets are $4 for each of the tournament’s three days.