Earlier this week, Meridian High School girls basketball coach Deneshia Faulkner broke the news to her team that they were not only ranked No. 1 in the state, they were ranked No. 17 nationally by MaxPreps.com.

The reaction from her players surprised her.

“Actually, they’ve kind of been trained to stay focus, so when I told them I didn’t get the initial reaction I expected,” Faulkner said. “They were looking at me like, ‘Oh, OK,’ like it was no big deal to them. A couple of days later I had to sit them down and really explain to them just what that meant.”

Mississippi teams don’t often get ranked nationally, Faulkner explained, and even though the ultimate goal is a state championship, her approach to rankings has evolved in the last year. A national ranking is something she wants her players to appreciate due to how rare it is.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned, especially from last season, is that it’s good to celebrate all of the successes,” Faulkner said. “In the past, I’ve always avoided celebrating the successes because I wanted to stay focus, and what happens is, when it doesn’t happen for you at the end — when we lost that (state semifinal) game — it wiped away everything that we’ve done that was great. The only thing that was still there was the loss. If I could do it all over again, I would definitely celebrate more throughout the year.”

Junior Jamesha Jones said she and her teammates didn’t think it was a big deal at first, so when she explained the significance of it, it was like a light bulb went on.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Jones recalled. “She had to explain it to us. She was like, ‘Do y’all not know how big this is?’ And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right.’”

Now that they understand, Faulkner said everyone is embracing the recognition and using it as motivation.

“It’s definitely not a distraction,” Faulkner said. “I think it’s great publicity for not just the program, but for Mississippi, because not too many Mississippi high school teams actually make national rankings, or at least not high enough to be noticed.”

The Lady Wildcats are 10-0 on the season, 2-0 in MHSAA Region 5-6A, and they’ve handled the uncertainty of “when’s the next game?” well, as MHS has faced multiple cancelations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The key to that success is camaraderie among the players, Faulkner said.

“They are fans of each other,” Faulkner said. “They understand each other’s roles. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and there’s no jealously. Nobody is trying to play anybody else’s role; everybody stays in their lane. Everyone is so good at what they do, and that’s what makes us so good.”

Another key to their success is how hard everyone is willing to work, Jones said.

“We’re working when nobody else is working,” Jones said. “Everyone might be home on break, and we’re working. When they’re eating, we’re working. When they’re sleeping, we’re working. We’re always working.”

MHS’s scheduled game Friday against George County was postponed, and the girls aren’t scheduled to play again until Tuesday, when they’re supposed to travel to Olive Branch.

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