Jerome Shelton, head coach of the St. Frances Academy girls' basketball team, is quick to tell you he tries to learn from other coaches. Shelton said it's a great way for him to grow as a coach, even as he is in the midst of a distinguished career in which he's led the Panthers to 10 Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland "A" conference titles and won more than 500 games.
This past year, Shelton found himself recalling a quote he heard Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma say about his team, as it approached a 100-game winning streak.
"One of the things he said that was so important was trying to get your players to focus on one game at a time and never take games off," Shelton said. "What we did with these 27 games is only focus on who is in front of us. Play as well as we can at that time and do what we do best out there to make us successful. We emphasize that all the time."
Auriemma's words were particularly relevant for St. Frances as its season wore on and the team developed a winning streak of its own. St. Frances went 27-0 this season, winning the difficult Patsy Mink division at the Title IX Holiday Tournament in Washington, D.C., and the IAAM Championship along the way.
The Panthers' achievements came despite playing one of the most difficult schedules in Baltimore. In addition to tough league competition, St. Frances found ways to beat top regional talent, like National Christian Academy, Sanford (Del.), Salem (Va.), Georgetown Visitation and Eleanor Roosevelt, outscoring opponents by an average of 21.92 points per game.
The dominant season has led to national recognition; the Panthers are ranked third in MaxPrep's top 25 rankings and ninth in the USA Today's super 25 rankings.
"Going undefeated wasn't the plan. We just wanted to win another conference title," senior forward Mia Davis said. "We started to win games and get confident that no one could actually beat us. From there, we began to have that mindset whenever we stepped on the court."
Despite St. Frances' success, there were plenty of question marks for the group coming into this season. The Panthers won the IAAM Championship in 2016, but four of their players graduated and another transferred, which left St. Frances with just four returning players. So the St. Frances coaching staff got to work recruiting new talent.
The Panthers had 12 players on their roster this season, making it one of the deepest teams Shelton has coached during his 26-year tenure as head coach. It also gave the Panthers a diverse roster that had as many freshmen as it did returners.
"I wanted to come in as a new piece and contribute," freshman shooting guard Delicia Pinnick said. "We needed to fill in the holes that the graduating seniors left if we wanted to maintain our level of play and win another championship."
In order for that to happen, the Panthers had to get on the same page quickly. The coaches relied heavily on veteran players, like captains Davis and junior point guard Nia Clouden, as well as junior forward Taneara Moore, to help the new players get accustomed to the way the Panthers go about their business.
For Shelton, getting the team's new players to buy into St. Frances' culture early was more important than anything else.
"Winning is an attitude; that's the first thing we try to implement," Shelton said. "We try to impress upon our players the importance of a work ethic, to bond with one another and accept roles. The better coaches will tell you that you establish culture first. The way you want things done and you want them done in such a fashion, so that when new players come in, they realize they're a part of something special."
St. Frances also takes pride in playing elite defense.
The Panthers limited opponents to 42.37 points per game and 39.5 in conference contests. The coaching staff emphasizes to each player the importance of guarding the basketball and how to play off the ball as well. Shelton said no athlete can play college basketball without those skills.
"The coaches always say before the game to hold the opponent to under 45 points," freshman forward Angel Reese said. "Because of that, we always have that mindset in the back of our heads; that's the target we should be aiming for."
Whenever the team's defense struggled, the Panthers' offense was able to thrive behind Davis and Clouden.
Davis has been a double-double machine during her three years of high school ball, becoming one of the best players in the Baltimore area in the process. Clouden has become a dominant force as well without commanding the ball too much, preferring to get her teammates involved.
The duo was relied upon heavily during St. Frances' regular-season finale against National Christian Academy, a program that is considered one of the nation's elite. In a much-hyped contest that extended into overtime after National Christian Academy hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation, Davis led all scorers with 21 points.
Clouden, who finished the game with 14 points, made her biggest contribution in overtime. She found herself with the ball as St. Frances was trailing with 5.2 seconds remaining. After the Panthers' drawn-up play broke apart, Clouden was forced to improvise and buried an 18-foot shot as time expired.
The shot gave St. Frances a 75-74 win and kept its undefeated season alive.
"Going into that game, we expected it to be a good one. We knew everyone on their team and what they were capable of doing," Clouden said. "When it was time to play, we were just ready to go. It was a fast game, really physical, too, a lot of fouls. I was really happy to see my shot go in, mostly just that the game was over and that we'd found a way to win."
The win catapulted St. Frances into the IAAM postseason with even more momentum. The group topped Seton Keough in the semifinals before besting McDonogh, 56-47, Feb. 19 to win the program's second straight IAAM championship.
Shelton still struggles to pick out his favorite performance that his players put together. Winning the Title IX championship was particularly exciting. Topping National Christian and claiming the league title also stick out. As dominant as St. Frances was for large stretches of the season, it's the moments when the girls had to fight through adversity that Shelton enjoyed seeing the most.
"We've shown a tremendous amount of poise under fire and executed well in late-game situations," Shelton said. "I am proud of my players because they were able to stay together during those times when games could have gone the other way if we didn't have the chemistry that we did."
Issue 231: March 2017