By Ron Holt
Despite falling short of its season long goal – the state championship – during the past two years, Bixby’s veteran girls’ basketball team remains committed to the process for another gold ball opportunity.
Coach Tina Thomas’ Lady Spartans reached the championship game of the Class 6A State Girls Tournament in 2020 and 2021, falling to unbeaten Norman (48-37) in 2020. Last season once-beaten Edmond North edged Bixby (59-57 in overtime) in the title game.
All five starters from last year’s 24-4 team, including four four-year starters return. The experience should boost the Lady Spartans’ chances of making a return appearance in the championship game. The journey begins Tuesday, Dec. 6, when Bixby opens the 2022-23 season in a Frontier Valley Conference game at Bartlesville. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m.
“It’s a driving force,” Coach Thomas said of the Lady Spartans close calls in the past two title games. “The girls have this sense of resolve this season and I think that’s been translated in our practices and translated in our scrimmages. They’ve done a good job of holding the standard regardless of the level of play.”
Bixby faces a unique situation opening the season. Four Lady Spartans – Gentry Baldwin, Gracy Wernli, Meredith Mayes and Alyssa Nielsen – have been in the starting lineup since they were freshman. Four freshmen starters are rare, especially in the state’s largest classifications.
“I don’t recall ever having that many freshmen starters. Maddie Bittle started for us as a freshman,” Thomas said of the 2018 BHS graduate who is currently playing at the University of Tulsa. “That’s huge having four senior starters along with seniors Kassidy Blankenship and Sadie Beltran … the seniors are stepping forward and handling various leadership roles. “They’ve all improved a lot,” coach Thomas said. “They may work harder than any kids I’ve ever coached. Besides our two-hour practices, they spend a lot of time working on their shots. Their strengths are different, which I think makes us hard to plan against. We have various tools in our arsenal and have more depth this year.”
Wernli, a 5-10 guard, led the balanced Lady Spartan attack last season, averaging 13.8 points per game. She hit 61 three-pointers and finished with 43 assists and 30 steals. Mayes, a 6-3 post player, averaged 12.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game last season while blocking 32 shots.
Nielsen, a 6-0 forward, averaged 10.5 points a game last season, hitting 55.3 percent from the field and Baldwin, a 5-7-point guard, averaged 1.2 points per game while leading the team in assists with 118. She also had 41 steals. Brynn Daniel, a talented 5-8 junior guard, is the other returning starter last season while the 5-2 Blankenship and 5-8 Beltran were key reserves.
Wernli, Mayes, Nielsen and Baldwin recently signed letters-of-intent to play college basketball. Wernli and Mayes signed with Abilene Christian, Nielsen signed with Drury University of Springfield, Missouri and Baldwin inked with Oral Roberts University.
“With those girls already signing, I think they feel like the pressure is off. All they’ve got to do now is play for their team,” noted Thomas, who is assisted this season by Shannon Hoffman and Corbin Burchett.
Also expected to contribute off the bench for the Lady Spartans this season are three sophomores – 5-2 guard Sarah Beltran, 5-10 guard Ama Musick and 5-10 forward Bailey Wilson – and 5-9 freshman guard Kate Wernli.
Following the Bartlesville opener, Bixby hosts the annual Bixby Invitational Tournament at Whitey Ford Field House, Thursday through Saturday (Dec. 8-10). It’s the start of a busy December for the Lady Spartans. Following the tourney, Bixby plays conference games at Sand Springs (Dec. 13) and Owasso (Dec. 16).
The Lady Spartans will play in the Nike national tournament of champions Dec. 18-22 in Phoenix, Arizona. Following Christmas, Bixby defends its title in the annual Girls Tournament of Champions at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Dec. 28-30.
“December is heavy with three conference games and three tournaments,” Thomas said. “We did fund raising for the Nike Tournament, a trip I think these kids have earned. After we return, we’ll play in the Oklahoma Tournament of Champions, which we clearly want to repeat.”
Lady Spartans Schedule
6 – at Bartlesville; 8-10 – Bixby Invitational Tournament, 13 – at Sand Springs, 16 – at Owasso, 18-22 – Nike Tournament, Phoenix, Arizona, 28-30 – Tournament of Champions, BOK Center.
10 – Sapulpa, 13 – Booker T. Washington, 17 – Union, 24 – at Broken Arrow, 27 – Muskogee, 31 – at Jenks.
3 – Bartlesville, 7 – Sand Springs, 10 – Owasso, 14 – at Sapulpa, 17 – at Booker T. Washington, 23-25 – Girls Regional Tournament.
2-4 – at Girls Area Tournament, 9-11 – Girls State Tournament.
Lady Spartans Varsity Roster
SENIORS: 2 Gentry Baldwin, 5-7 guard; 21 Kassidy Blankenship, 5-2 guard; 22 Gracy Wernli, 5-10 guard; 23 Meredith Mayes, 6-3 forward/center; 33 Alyssa Nielsen, 6-0, forward/center; 43 Sadie Beltran, 5-8 forward. JUNIORS:14 Brynn Daniel, 5-8 guard/forward. SOPHOMORES: 12 Ama Musick, 5-10 guard; 15 Bailey Wilson, 5-10 forward; 34 Sarah Beltran, 5-2 guard. FRESHMAN: 11 Kate Wernli, 5-9 guard.