By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
Basketball season begins tonight for Bluefield College, as the Lady Rams open the campaign by hosting Virginia Intermont.
M.J. Baker is thinking big as her third season as the Lady Rams tip off against the Cobras at 6 p.m. in the Dome Gymnasium.
“We are realistic, we are in the toughest conference in the nation...,” Baker said. “We really feel like if we can finish in the top 5 we will put ourselves in good position to get to nationals.
“Overall, we would like to have at least a .500 record.”
That might be enough for the Rams to make that goal. Bluefield finished last season with a 16-15 record, which was seventh out of 11 teams in the school’s first year in the ultra-competitive Mid-South Conference, which had six teams advance to the NAIA national tournament last March.
The Mid-South has dwindled from 11 to 10 teams this season, with the Rams picked to finish seventh in the preseason polls.
“I feel like we could have done better, but to finish in the middle of the pack in the toughest conference in the nation is somewhat of a success,” Baker said. “We will have 10 teams in our conference and the preseason polls came out (Tuesday) and five of the 10 teams are ranked in the top 25 in the nation so it is going to be another battle this year...
“For us to be the best we know we have to beat the best so we know if we make it to nationals we definitely deserve it and we are ready.”
Baker, who is expecting a baby in the next two weeks, is equally excited about the prospects of the season ahead.
“We return four of our top scorers, we lost our point guard and a double-digit scorer, but we added a lot of arsenal to our bench,” Baker said. “We are a lot deeper this year than we were last year and we are more well-rounded.”
While Bluefield did lose point guard Ashley White, the Rams are loaded elsewhere, led by 5-foot-6 senior and NCCAA All-American Teqa McNeal, who led the Rams with 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and nearly two steals a game last season.
The Rams also return 5-11 senior Janee Simmons (11.5 ppg, 8.7 reb, 1.5 blocks) and 5-10 junior Monique Robson (10.1 ppg, 4.8 reb), and regain the services of 6-4 junior shot-blocker Destiny Tolliver — nicknamed ‘Showtime’ — and 6-0 junior Asia Wheeler, who was ineligible to play last season.
“Teqa is one of our best players, and we have Janee Simmons inside, who is a double-double hit for us,” Baker said. “’Showtime’ served in the military last year and she is back for us, and Asia is going to be a beast on the boards as well.
“Monique is a kid that can average 10 or 12 points, a really good point guard so we have their backs.”
Trying to replace White at point guard will be a trio of candidates, including 5-6 junior Shelby Key, a 5-6 Russian freshman Valerie Lebedeva and the versatile McNeal.
“I think I see us being about 9 or 10 deep, it is anyone’s game who starts and who is going to contribute,” Baker said.
“That is exciting, we haven’t had that the last few years so they have really challenged each other in practice and hopefully that will apply to the games...
“For us to be successful, it is going to come down to chemistry and health and just us being tough and keeping our heads.
The quality of depth in terms of players and coaching is what Baker learned the most from Bluefield’s first season in the Mid-South.
“I think we really hung with most teams when we went five for five, but once we had to go to the bench and they went to the bench, even if we left our five in and they went to their bench, they were just as strong so their overall team being strong,” Baker said. “Also the coaching is so strong.
“There are some outstanding coaches with some great minds in the conference and then just the caliber of talent because there are a lot of D-I transfers.”
Most every roster is dotted with past Division I prospects, although Bluefield isn’t one of those teams.
“We have four or five that we play against easily every game,” Baker said. “We do have caliber players that are D-I, they just didn’t have the grades or they come out of JUCO so we still have some in our arsenal.”
Injuries have hampered the Rams in Baker’s first two seasons, but the bench appears to be deeper this season. That includes holdovers Jade McDaniel (5-9, jr), Maryah Mazyck (5-8, soph) and Megan Tennant 5-9, soph), and freshman imports Alexis Grant (5-8), Whitney Smith (5-8) and 5-10 Abigayle Pack.
McDaniel played at James Monroe, while Tolliver was at Bluefield High School.
Baker likes an attacking style on both sides of the court, pressuring the ball on defense and pushing the ball on offense, either finding close range shots or taking 3s. McNeal made 63 treys last season.
“I think our strength is going to be our defense, not that we will out-work people because that is insulting to other teams, but I feel like we can outlast people with our defense and rebounding,” Baker said. “It is probably one of the best defensive teams I have ever had so it is real exciting...
“Actually we should have more shooters this year than we did last year so we are very versatile.”
Staying healthy can be difficult for a team that plays as hard as Baker’s clubs play, but there will be no taking it in easy in practice like she tried last season at times.
“Last year we tried to ease up in practice and we lost our stamina and that is what we do so we have to go back to it,” Baker said. “It is tough, we have to go out all out and just go by the trainers and use their expert opinion and pray that God protects us.”
Bluefield will start fast, playing Virginia Intermont tonight, travel to Radford for an exhibition on Saturday, host West Virginia Tech on Tuesday and visit Marshall a week from today.
“We are excited...” Baker said. “It is a good test at the beginning, a lot of different looks, each of those teams have different strengths so it is good to see what we can do against them.”
Baker likes to challenge her squad, and will do it, not only in the Mid-South, but with four exhibition games with Division I teams, including Radford. Marshall, Wofford and North Carolina-Asheville.
“They definitely love to play against tough competition and it gets us ready for the conference,” said Baker, whose Rams will also face cross-town rival Bluefield State and regional rival Emory & Henry. “To be honest there is not much difference with these D-I teams and in our conference that we play.”
Baker, whose husband, Ganon Baker, is a nationally respected basketball instructor, has grown to enjoy Bluefield, and will soon add to her family.
“My husband and I are expecting our first baby, we will have our first in two weeks so that is a little crazy because the baby is due in two weeks here at the beginning of the season so it will be interesting with the season and a new born,” Baker said. “We love it here.
“I am really excited about this team, this is the best team we have had since I have been here.”
Baker is assisted by Jessica Brokaw, who will earn a new moniker when the baby is born.
“Jessica is already Aunt Jess,” said Baker, with a smile. “She is a major part of our family, one of my best friends.”
—Contact Brian Woodson