By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
Not much is expected from the Bluefield College women’s basketball team. That is, except from the Lady Rams themselves.
When the Mid-South Conference released its preseason poll, the Lady Rams — much like the Bluefield men — were selected for last place in their first season in what might be the best NAIA league in the nation.
No big deal to Bluefield junior Tequila (Teqa) McNeal.
“I am not too worried about it, I kind of figured that would happen because they don’t know a lot about us or the new people that are coming in so I kind of figured it,” McNeal said. “I am not really worried about it, numbers don’t mean much. We are going to go out and play hard and we are going to upset people for a fact so we will be all right.”
Ditto for M.J. Baker, who in her first season at Bluefield last year led the Rams to a school record 22-12 record, finishing third in its final season in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, sixth in the NCCAA national tournament and the Rams earned a ranking in the NAIA Top 25 for the first time in program history.
“I welcome it. I am not a person that believes we can come into the conference and be given respect, you have to earn it,” Baker said. “I kind of figured we would be picked in last place and I am okay being the David to the Goliath.
“We are a team that is going to be underestimated the whole year and that is one thing we are looking forward to. It is challenging with the teams we will face, but also giving the best that we can do.”
Bluefield will open its season on Friday by hosting Virginia Intermont at the Dome Gymnasium at 6 p.m. The Rams will also host Allen (S.C.) on Sunday and Bluefield State on Nov. 7. Their first MSC contest will be on Nov. 15 against Georgetown, which finished third in the nation last season.
Three teams received at least one first place vote in the MSC, led by favorite Shawnee State, along with Georgetown and Campbellsville.
“We had six teams last year going to nationals and five teams ranked in the top five” Baker said. “Georgetown finished third in the nation and we open with them so it is going to be a challenge and a lot of fun, but with our group this year we are really focused on defense, toughness and just having that mental edge and in every game giving it our best.”
Bluefield will also play a pair of exhibitions with Division I Big South Conference clubs Radford and High Point next month.
“This year we are very excited to be in the Mid-South Conference, we obviously know we are going to be challenged every game,” Baker said. “We just got done with a conference meeting with all the coaches and just gave a little highlight of what we have as far as in our arsenal with each team this year and we are up against the best.
“The beauty of that I will know coming into the conference that if we make it to nationals or however we do, we will deserve to be there. In order to be the best you have to play the best and the Mid-South Conference is one of the best conferences in the nation on the women’s basketball side.”
Among the returnees is McNeal, a 5-foot-6 junior, who contributed 13.7 points and 3.7 rebounds last season, while earning National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) All-American honorable mention recognition.
“I am very excited about the season,” McNeal said. “We are under the radar so I think it will be fun to come in and get some upsets, which I am sure we will because we are a hard working team.
“I am a little nervous about the size thing, but we play hard so I am sure we will be okay, I am ready.”
Size is a concern for the Lady Rams. Baker currently has 14 eligible players, and only four are 5-foot-10 or above, including 6-3 JUCO transfer Asia Watson, and a trio of returnees in 5-10 junior Janee’ Simmons, 5-10 sophomore Monique Robson and 5-10 junior Asia Wheeler.
Simmons is the other returning starter for Bluefield, having averaged 6.6 points a game last season, but did have several games with double-doubles in scoring and rebounding.
“We are going to be undersized this year, really undersized except for Asia Watson,” Baker said. “We are very small, but we are going to be able to put that to our advantage with a lot of pressing, just forcing speed, forcing the action and outlasting people and just being in the best shape and being one of the strongest teams in the conference.”
What Bluefield lacks in size, they’ll make up for in the ability to get up and down the floor. Baker is excited about the addition of 5-3 senior Ashley White, a native of Philadelphia, to the Lady Rams’ backcourt. She will be joined in the background at times by the team’s only other senior, 5-3 Celinda Arrington.
“(Ashley) is unbelievable, she is probably a D-I player that just came in that is going to make a big difference this year,” said Baker, who also brought in Watson, another Philadelphia product, who played last season at a Kansas junior college. “I don’t think our conference understands what we have in our arsenal, but it is a lot fun.
“We are so excited just to be in this conference and just to see the best and just to see what we have and where we measure up.”
Other candidates for playing time for the Rams includes junior Sharonda Tate (5-7), sophomores Tempestt Lewis (5-4), Bria Moore (5-8) and James Monroe product Jade McDaniel (5-8) and freshmen Maryah Mazyck (5-8), Alexis Allen (5-5) and 5-9 Megan Tennant.
All could be expected to contribute for Bluefield, which lost several seniors to graduation, including Kia Gilliard and Takieya Rouse.
“Last year we were able to experience some success and they earned every bit of it last year,” Baker said. “They know that with hard work anything is possible...”
Even in the MSC, which is highly competitive in all sports, but other Bluefield teams like volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer have already secured tournament slots in a league where not everyone advances to the postseason.
“That is exciting to see that because it can be done so hopefully it gives us hope as well,” Baker said. “The biggest thing will be buying into discipline and hard work and how it pays off and you have to be consistent even if you don’t feel like it.”
That begins with Baker’s philosophy of discipline and commitment to working as a team.
“We have really tried to preach discipline and passion for each other and passion for other people,” Baker said. “Our theme this is year is ‘I am second’, second to God, second to each other.
“We are really putting the team first so I really feel if they come together and continue to put the team first that we will be in good shape.”
Baker would like to see the Lady Rams finish in the top 8 out of 11 teams in the MSC and earn a tournament berth.
“To me success is not going to be winning this year,” Baker said. “It would be nice to win, but success to me would be if we could finish in the top 8 in the conference and make the conference tournament and having a .500 or above record and we can go to the NCCAA tournament.”
What Baker is really looking for is simply a good experience and for everyone to grow into better people.
“Just for them to have a good experience. We have two seniors and we want them to have a great experience and be able to enjoy each other and learn a lot and become stronger in who they are,” Baker said. “When we face adversity and we are going to face it, that we show character and that we learn more about ourselves.
“That is what success would be for us.”
—Contact Brian Woodson