With target on back, perennial girls basketball power St. Frances takes aim at another title

For The Baltimore Sun

St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton and his girls basketball team have won three consecutive Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championships. The Panthers want to make it four in a row. That is probably why they have adopted the theme of “embrace the challenge” for the 2018-19 season.

Shelton said his talented team knows they simply cannot win just by walking out on the floor. They need to keep playing tough all the time because, especially in a league as strong as the IAAM A Conference, trouble will find them if they don’t.

In other words, if St. Frances wants a fourth straight title, the team understands they'll need to work for it.

“We want to continue to play at a very high level,” Shelton said. “Getting another championship is not an entitlement. We have to earn it.”

The Panthers, like most high school teams, lost a few key players but also gained a few. They are anchored by junior all-everything standout Angel Reese. The 6-foot-3 Reese averaged 17.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game last season and has a long list of colleges hoping she’ll play for them in two years.

Reese has been a first-team All-Metro pick twice and is considered one of the nation’s top players, and Shelton said she's someone kind of without a position. Why? She can play all five of them.

“She’s positioned as a wing,” Shelton said. “I think she’s the best wing in the country. She’s going to get better. We don’t want her to plateau as a player. She’s worked hard in all areas of basketball to improve, and she continues to climb, skills-wise.”

But the Panthers lost All-Metro guard Nia Clouden to graduation. She ran the offense and was the quarterback. Delicia Pennick was a key player and she transferred. Shelton, though, is confident that sophomore Aniya Gourdine will be able to run the show at point guard.

He’s also hoping for big things from players such as Savawn Hughes (guard) and St. Vincent Pallotti transfer Anani Humphrey (forward), plus fellow forward Madyson Hinton. Humphrey is a strong offensive player who can give St. Frances scoring help inside and outside.

Catonsville coach Mike Mohler’s Comets have played against St. Frances in years past and said that if teams want to figure out how to beat the Panthers, they need to defeat a team that’s usually got plenty of depth.

“To play at their level and to be as successful as they [have been], you’ve just got to have players,” Mohler said. “They’ve had a nice stream of really good players.”

The Panthers have beaten McDonogh in each of the past three A Conference championship games, and coach Brad Rees would enjoy breaking that streak. Rees and the Eagles already experienced a tough loss when guard Jessica Booth suffered a torn ACL, costing her the season.

Rees knows what his team will be going against this season at St. Frances — a new kind of team, but one that still features depth and a player like Reese.

“They’re good, but they’re going to look a little different,” Rees said. “You don’t lose a kid like Nia Clouden without it having some impact on your team … [but Reese] is really tough to match up with.”

Roland Park is another team that hopes to have a chance to stop the St. Frances streak. Dani Steinbach takes over the Reds from longtime coach Scott Buckley, who retired from coaching following last season after 22 years.

Steinbach knows plenty about St. Frances as she served as an assistant coach at Roland Park the past seven seasons and saw the Panthers beat the Reds twice last year.

“There’s something about St. Frances that lets them continually rise to the top,” she said. “They do. They’ve proven it. They’ve earned [everything].”

But Steinbach brings back a team that, like McDonogh and Institute of Notre Dame, which moves up after winning the IAAM B Conference, could threaten the Panthers. The Reds have five returning starters (three seniors and two juniors), including top player Mir McLean, an All-Metro pick.

Steinbach said it will take a mix of a few different things to beat St. Frances — from any team.

“It’s being prepared, and it’s executing and having the mental toughness to overcome the history books and face that challenge,” she said. “They’re not going to hand you anything. You’ve got to earn it. There is not a time when St. Frances is not going to show up.”

Shelton said his team is aware it must show up every game, in fact, especially when playing in conference. It’s a challenge they play to eagerly embrace this season while chasing a fourth straight conference title.

“We know the IAAM is a very competitive league, and the coaches are very good,” Shelton said. “When we play in our league, we’re going to have to raise our level of play.”

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