The Meridian girls basketball team has come a long way in just three years.
Head coach Deneshia Faulkner remembers hosting her first tryout after taking over the Meridian program in the 2017 offseason. “No one cares if we lose as long as the boys win” she was told, and Faulkner responded by saying that people don’t care because the players don’t care.
After a 13-14 season and a second-round playoff berth in Faulkner’s first year, the Lady Wildcats went 22-5 during the 2018-19 season with an MHSAA Region 5-6A title and another trip to the second round of the postseason. So far this winter, Meridian is 10-0 with a No. 5 overall ranking in Mississippi on MaxPreps.com. The Lady Wildcats are expected to compete for a Class 6A title and are winning games by an average score of 68-34, with their closest contest being a 52-42 victory against Harrison Central on Nov. 29.
“It feels good that our work isn’t being taken for granted,” senior guard and Dandy Dozen selection Ti’Ian Boler said. “There’s a target on our backs now, but there was a point in time when (Faulkner) first came where we were used to losing and not being recognized, and you could tell by our work ethic that we didn’t care about winning or losing. Now that’s changed because we’re used to winning a lot, and our work ethic has to be 100 times harder than it was the last time.”
The players and coaches have discussed being tagged as one of the teams to beat in Class 6A, but the focus has been on slow, gradual improvement rather than trying to live up to the hype.
“Early on I made a point to make sure everyone understood the difference between being a fan and being a player,” Faulkner explained. “All that publicity is good for the city and good for the program, but we want the fans to absorb all of that. We’re going to stay focused.”
One of the ways they try to downplay the hype is by giving themselves challenges in each game regardless of the final score.
“Even in some of the games we win, if they don’t meet those challenges, they kind of feel like they lost, so it makes things a little tougher for them and keeps them on the edge and focused,” Faulkner said.
Right now, the biggest challenge for the players is avoiding bad habits when the team is up big during games.
“We tend to go from what’s working, where we’ll be winning all these games and then get content and complacent and stagnant,” Boler said. “We have to keep going in every game like we’ve lost every game.”
After Boler was selected as a Dandy Dozen, Faulkner said she noticed an uptick in her senior’s confidence, and she hopes that rubs off on the other players.
“She had a really good offseason, and her confidence has improved a lot, because becoming a Dandy Dozen was one of her personal goals,” Faulkner said. “It’s a big deal for us, but more importantly than that, it kind of gave the other girls — especially the younger girls — something to look forward to where they realize they can (become a Dandy Dozen one day), too.”
The biggest difference, Boler said, is she’s attacking defenses more than in years past.
“My confidence improved first by me going strong, because I have a bad habit of me fading away and going away from the defense,” Boler said. “Now it’s in my head to go to them. I have to keep working on it. My confidence in my 3-point shot can also get better. I can shoot the 3-ball, I just tend not to in games.”
A big addition to the Lady Wildcats’ roster this offseason was sophomore guard Debreasha Powe, who transferred from Lamar. At 5-foot-11, Powe is the same height as Boler, giving the Lady Wildcats another player with a big wingspan.
“It’s a big help for our length,” Boler said. “It feels good to have someone who has my back when I miss a layup, and I have her back when she misses a layup. It’s like a string.”
Faulkner said Powe’s transition from Lamar to Meridian was made easier by the fact that she knew most of the players already from attending elementary and middle school with them.
“Aside from adjusting to the different style of practices we have, she fits in now like she’s been here all along,” Faulkner said.
Said Powe, “At first it was tough, but as things moved along it got easier. I just had to get used to everything.”
And having a Dandy Dozen as a teammate is a big boost in motivation, Powe added.
“It motivates the whole team because we’re proud of her, and we’re just going to work better,” Powe said.
While the Lady Wildcats have won most of their games comfortably so far, they know tougher competition awaits down the road. Powe said there are two keys to keeping the momentum going.
“Discipline and execution,” Powe said. “We have to stay focused.”
On Saturday, Meridian travels to Sumter Central in York, Alabama.