By Mike Talbert
OXFORD Oxford coach Jeff Nelson didn’t even notice that he picked up career win No. 300 last week at the Water Valley tournament.
His record has now jumped up to 303-62 as the Lady Chargers have jumped off to 19-1 record.
They are the Daily Journal’s No. 1 girls team. They are also ranked No. 7 in the state in the Associated Press poll.
This is not the best start for an Oxford team. Nelson’s 1986-87 crew went through the regular season undefeated before finishing 33-2. The 1996 squad suffered loss No. 1 early in the season when it lost at Cleveland 46-42, the only time Oxford fell below 50 points this year.
“I don’t know if we would be 19-1 without that game,” Nelson said. “That game showed our team that we couldn’t win without good effort.”
The Lady Chargers will face perhaps their stiffest test of the season at 2 p.m. Sunday at Tad Smith Coliseum on the Ole Miss campus when they play the state’s No. 1 Harrison Central girls, (15-1) who have not lost to a Mississippi team this year.
It is going to be a major test of Oxford’s numbers vs. shear Harrison Central talent.
The Lady Chargers are outscoring opponents by a healthy 67-39 margin this year. Much of it keyed around the Chargers’ defense.
“We concentrate on our defense,” Nelson said. “We know our offense is good enough for us to win if we take care of our defense.”
Nelson claims this is a no-star Charger team with 10 girls playing regularly in the first half of every game. He feels like they have the depth to wear down other players.
But he sees room to grow there.
“We are still not blocking out like I want us to. We haven’t learned to pin people on defense,” Nelson said.
The heart of the Oxford machine is a pair of senior post players 5-8 Nicki Johnson and 5-11 Lynndy Fitts.
“They have pretty much held us together, they have played so steadily,” Nelson says.
Yet he demands a balance from his players, and Johnson is the only player on the team averaging in double figures with an 11-point average.
Johnson, who uses athleticism to overcome a height disadvantage, has signed with Southern University in Baton Rouge. She is the only senior on the squad to sign with a college so far. Nelson said Fitts, is looking at Mississippi College. He expects his other two seniors, guards Leijuana Banks and Telitha Ball, daughter of former Ole Miss standout Coolidge Ball, to at least play junior college ball.
That would fit into the Oxford tradition. The Lady Chargers, whose worst season under Nelson was his 20-9 first season, have turned out 11 senior college and 11 junior college players so far. Two of them, Tanya Redmond and Stacy Johnson, are starting at Delta State and a third, LaConger Pegues is starting at North Alabama.
“I am kind of wondering why I haven’t won a state championship,” Nelson said.
The Lady Chargers been to the state tournament five times in 11 seasons.
“I have been so blessed with good players,” he said.
It looks like the blessings are continuing. The ninth grade team has not lost a game since it came together as seventh graders. The squad is 9-0 this year, even though Nelson has moved up the best freshman, 5-11 post player Meg Banahan, to the varsity. She has been giving some relief to Johnson and Fitts. She was also valuable to the team when one of the top shooters on the squad, 5-11 junior Rosemary Nix, had to miss several games with mid-season injury.
Nelson said that at some schools Banahan would be a starter. But that doesn’t fit with Nelson’s style. The seniors come first. They have paid their dues.
“Meg is going to be outstanding. A lot of my other younger players are going to develop,” he said.
His reserves including Keisha Howell, Tasheba Lester, Allison Shaw and Jamila Quarles are just as likely to reach double figures as any starter.
“Our team is so balanced. That is what makes us so good,” Nelson said.