Despite their gaudy regular-season win totals, the last two seasons ended bittersweet for the Myers Park girls basketball team. But this year, after knocking off Southeast Raleigh 61-46 on March 15, the Mustangs’ season ended just plain sweet.
The Mustangs (30-1) won their first girls basketball title in state history after jumping out to a 16-4 first-quarter lead and dominating the glass, outrebounding the Bulldogs 55-26.
Junior Rydeiah Rogers led the way, scoring a game-high 25 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in a dominant performance that earned her MVP honors, and sophomore Stuart Ayer picked the perfect time for a career night, posting career-bests with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“Stuart was a huge key,” said coach Barbara Nelson, who is in her second season at Myers Park after winning seven state titles at Providence Day and a successful stint at Wingate University. “If you look at their rotations defensively, when they went to double (Rydeiah) they stayed on the guards and Stuart got some nice lay-ins.
“And (Rydeiah) was amazing. She asked to come out a couple times but I went ‘Nope, we need you on the court right now.’”
While the two posts were the standouts, the Mustangs had big performances from Aliyah Mazyck (10 points, seven rebounds), Saadia Timpton (eight points, five rebounds) and Morgan Uptegraff (six points, eight rebounds).
“It means a lot to us,” Rogers said. “We’ve definitely worked hard for three long years – four for Saadia – and to finally say that we made it is just a great feeling.”
But it was the hard work of this season – with Saturday practices, team functions and team bonding – that culminated with the place the Mustangs had always wanted to be after going a remarkable 90-3 record the last three years.
“The first year it was everyone saying ‘Oh yeah, Myers Park is going to win’ and we fell short,” said Timpton, one of five seniors. “And last year we fell short again, so I think people were thinking we’d just fall short again, but for us to do it this year it let everyone know we’re not anything to play with.”
That determined focus helped the Mustangs never lose sight of their goals after suffering a loss to Maxpreps.com’s No. 1-ranked Blackman (Tenn.) in a tournament in Naples (Fla.) against nationally-ranked competition. That focus is something Nelson said is the biggest difference in this year’s team.
The Mustangs were a defensively aggressive team who relied on steals to generate easy buckets when Nelson arrived. Last year, she molded them into a team capable of running a half-court offense. But that focus eventually let them down.
“I spent last year playing half court, and it caught us, we weren’t in good enough shape and they didn’t all buy in,” she said. “We went from being a team that couldn’t play half court to a team that couldn’t control the tempo. Now it was how do we take those pieces and make something that has a chance?”
And Nelson found her answer. The Mustangs ran with teams that wanted to, they’d slow it down if they needed to and could play any style in between. Nelson knew if they stayed calm and executed, her team had the makeup and resolve to make history.
As they headed into the week of preparation before the state championship, Nelson said she knew it was a week for her players, their parents and the school to relish in. There were email threads about parents excitedly wanting to do this and that to honor the team, but the veteran coach never let her players lose sight of the biggest goal: showing up at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh even-keeled and ready to play.
On March 14, cheerleading coach Karen Holmes organized a pep rally, inviting local media and selling 400 tickets to students to get out of class and cheer on their Mustangs. There was screaming, cheering, a drum line and the players and coaches soaked it all up.
“It was a big deal,” Nelson said. “The kids were out-of-their-minds excited, I was excited and then at 3 o’clock we go to practice and the kids were drained, not one of us including the coach has energy to practice.
“It was a great reminder that if we’re too excited you won’t have adrenaline and energy to play (in the championship).”
With that, the Mustangs refocused. They were calm on the bus ride up to Raleigh, patiently sat in the stands waiting for their 5 p.m. tip off and left all of the emotion for their on-court play.
And it showed. The Mustangs came out fresh and jumped all over Southeast Raleigh, controlled the rebounding game, held the Bulldogs to 30 percent shooting, wearing them down defensively, mentally and in the end on the scoreboard.
When it was over, Mazyck said the team could finally enjoy all that they’d worked so hard for.
“I think by us winning a championship we accomplished our one goal for the season,” she said. “The stepping stones were the Naples tournament, the conference tournament, those were small stepping stones. But we won a state championship and nobody can take that from us.”
As they walked off the court as champions, Nelson said it was gratifying to come as far as this team has come – and to do it
“Personally, any time you feel a team has come from Point A to Point Z that’s satisfying,” Nelson said. “Even though we lost a game and didn’t go undefeated, we hunted competition, we found our own measuring stick, we quit looking at the score, we quit looking at that and said ‘Are we giving our best?’ If we are, be happy with it. And if we’re not, find a way to figure out how to do that. That’s a maturity level that to get to will help these kids out all throughout their
“I didn’t feel like last year we were the best that we could be and I’m not sure that team should’ve won the state last year because I didn’t feel like at the end of the year we were the best we could be. I felt like this year, we were the best that we could be.”