When Ben Holder took over as Midway’s girls basketball coach prior to the 2016-17 season, it didn’t take him more than a practice or two to realize that girls responded differently to things than boys.
Holder had served as an assistant on the Midway boys’ hoops teams before making the switch. And, of course, much of coaching the game of basketball was the same – same rules, same principles, same fundamental techniques.
Different gender, though. Sometimes, a different way of looking at things. And, thus, Holder found it necessary to tweak his tactics.
“It’s always a difficult transition going from boys to girls, I imagine if you asked any coach,” Holder said. “It’s just different in how I approached it. I came to it just as I did the boys, and I figured out in a hurry that I had to be a little bit different. So, I’ve adjusted some things, but definitely kept some things as well. I coach them hard, and most of them respond to it really well.”
You see, for Holder it wasn’t necessarily about dialing down the volume. He’ll still rip into his team when he senses they need it – loudly, in fact.
But once he gleaned how to better communicate with and motivate his girls, the Pantherettes really started making some noise. Tradition-rich Midway is 30-4 on the year and ranked 11th in Class 6A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches heading into the start of the UIL state playoffs, which get going on Monday.
For their part, Midway’s players say they appreciate Holder’s “tough love” approach.
“He’s brought a lot, honestly. He’s more tough on the girls,” said Ja’Naiya Davis, a four-year starter at point guard. “I love it when somebody gets into me, tells me what I need to do right.”
Added fellow senior guard Ca’Leyah Burrell: “From him coming from the boys’ side, he put a lot of pressure on us. We don’t necessarily get treated like boys, but we play like them. We’re very tough. I think he knows what he’s doing. We trust him.”
Midway’s toughness spills over into the way it plays defense. The Pantherettes are yielding only 40 points per game on the season. Lately, though, they’ve been stingier than an IRS accountant with a toothache. Midway gave up 29 points in a win over Killeen, 20 in a romp over Shoemaker and 35 in the regular-season finale against San Angelo Central.
“Our length,” Holder said, when asked what makes his team so tough defensively. “Shamaryah Duncan, she’s a sophomore for us, a taller guard. We’re able to put her at the top of some of the zone looks we make. Her length allows us to get in the passing lanes.
“Ja’Naiya Davis, she’s a ball hawk. She’s great offensively, her numbers show that throughout the entire year, but she’s a ball hawk. She’s just sneaky good. She really is. Then we just have speed. We’re definitely not the tallest team you’re going to see make a run, but we’re generally pretty fast.”
Once Davis, the ball hawk, uses her talons to pluck the rock away, she has a pretty sharp handle on what to do with it next. Her experience as a four-year varsity player and team captain helps in that regard. So too does her familiarity with her teammates.
“Usually, you just know,” Davis said. “It’s just a feeling of, ‘There’s somebody open.’ I take it for myself if it’s wide open, or if they call for the ball you give it to them. … They all do something different, so knowing what each one does helps a lot.”
Midway will draw Cedar Hill (23-10) in the Class 6A bi-district round at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Corsicana High School. Holder calls the opponents from District 7-6A “the toughest bi-district in the state,” and he’s not blowing smoke. That district features No. 1-ranked and two-time defending state champion Duncanville, plus three other playoff teams, including Cedar Hill, who have played Duncanville within five points or fewer.
Last year, a 28-win Midway team succumbed in the bi-district round to South Grand Prairie. So the Pantherettes are taking nothing for granted. Their quest – like so many others – is to reach the state tournament, but they know they’ll have to be tougher than ever in order to get it done.
That doesn’t mean they can’t have fun along the way. Midway tends to blend its serious on-court business with no shortage of locker-room levity. High school hijinks, if you will.
“(On the bus), Coach will be like, ‘Guys, we’ve got to chill out. We’ve got to put our headphones in,’” said senior post Madison Burns. “We like to stay lit. But we know when it’s time to get focused for the game.”
The Midway players know that winning brings its own rewards. Following a home win over state-ranked Copperas Cove a couple of weeks ago, the Pantherettes lost their minds in screeching, ear-splitting glee in the locker room when Holder informed them that the victory had afforded them a day off from practice.
See? The second-year coach is really just a teddy bear.
“They figured me out. They all know that I love them very much,” Holder said. “It’s never personal. I tell them that all the time. It’s never personal. I’m just trying to make you the best player, the best team, you can possibly be.”