FRENCH SETTLEMENT – When asked what’s given this season’s French Settlement girls basketball team an extra spark, it didn’t take senior Dannah Martin long to answer.
And it’s not just about the Lady Lions having five senior starters.
“Coming into this season we were going have a strong starting five and six, seven, eight off the bench,” Dannah Martin said. “We knew that we were going to have a little more depth than we usually have, and I think that the changes that we made as far as positivity throughout our (team) and starting that with us five seniors, I think our season has been as successful as it has because of how much of a team environment we’ve tried to make it and how inclusive everything has been.
“If varsity fails, JV fails,” she said.
Martin said the Lady Lions, who enter Tuesday’s game at Doyle as the No. 5 team in the Class 2A power rankings, work on bonding each day after practice with what the team calls ‘put-ups’.
“If there’s someone who really stood out in practice, every single person goes through and points out one person,” Dannah Martin said. “We go through those every day. Coaches give one. I also think that we’ve really made it a point communicate in practice – giving high-fives, talking to one another, and I think that that’s really come a long way.
“(We’re) making a point to notice each other and be friends with each other, not just teammates,” she said. “It’s the little things.”
Those ‘little things’ have helped French Settlement compile a 27-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in District 10-2A play. While Martin leads the team averaging 24.1 points per game, the atmosphere the team has built has enabled her to focus on other parts of her game.
“I feel like the way us five really work together, I think that says a lot about who we are,” Dannah Martin said. “The scoring thing, that’s something I’ve worried about in the past, but stepping on the floor this year, that’s something I never even think about. I know that everybody has my back, and I know that I’m going to have their back.”
While Martin is the team’s primary scorer, each of the team’s seniors have settled into their roles this season. For Serenity Smith, that meant moving to point guard for the first time in her playing career.
“I was kind of worried because team is a very big part (of what FSHS does), so I felt like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m point guard. I’m going to let my team down,’” Smith said. “So at first they told me, and I was like, ‘Uh uh, nope, nope,’ and so then I started practicing a lot, working really hard and focusing in on that during AAU. I felt like that helped me tremendously, and then I got here (high school ball), and with everyone just being team first and them second, I felt that helped me a lot because that just rallied my confidence.
“I felt like if I made a mistake, it was OK,” Smith said. “They had my back. If I made a mistake, they were right there telling me, ‘Shake it off. You’ve got the next one.’ That helped me grow as a player and an individual.”
Fellow senior Baylee Balfantz said it’s a mentality the senior class has easily embraced.
“There’s not one negative personality on this team senior-wise,” Balfantz said. “They just make everyone feel like it’s not your fault, it’s our fault. One person makes a mistake, it’s a team mistake. They really help in positive ways.”
Smith has responded averaging 10.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
“I was talking to Baylee (Balfantz) the other day,” Smith said. “I forgot that I wasn’t a point guard before. I just felt like I’ve always played that position just because I’m so used to it now. It’s like normal now, so it’s good.”
For her part, Balfantz made the move from a ‘five’ last season to a ‘four’, where she’s averaging 3.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. She’s not worried about those numbers because she knows how she fits in on the team.
“My role is just to play scrappy – 100 percent on defense and help our scorers score on offense – pound it in to (center) Mae (Babin), screen for Dannah, look for Dannah on the pop-out shots and just do my part as a helper in all of this,” Balfantz.
The other half of FSHS’ defensive duo is Shay Parker, who’s known for her physical style of play, which she said comes naturally, sort of.
“I guess it’s growing up with brothers, I guess,” Parker said of where the roots of her playing style may have begun. “They’ve always been like that. They’ll go play football in the yard, and I always wanted to do that with them. I’m just used to them punching me – not in a bad way. Maybe it’s a football side to me. I don’t know.
“I kind of like it though,” Parker continued. “Not getting hit, but I just like the intensity of it and just playing like that.”
Parker is averaging 3.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, and while most of her points come from playing under the basket, she’s hit seven 3-pointers this season, which she said is a product of the confidence she’s built this season with her fellow seniors.
“With this team environment, it’s so easy to be confident and just know it’s OK to take that shot even if last year I didn’t feel confident,” Parker said. “This year, I feel like a whole new person. I feel like it’s OK to take that shot, and it’s OK to miss them and to shoot them, but if you don’t shoot them, you’re just going to miss it anyway.”
While Smith, Martin, Balfantz and Parker have been mainstays for FSHS over the past few years, Babin is a newcomer to the group, joining the team as a transfer from Dutchtown after not playing as a junior.
“Coming in as a newbie, they showed me what to do,” Babin said. “They walked there right with me. They had all been through it before, so they just helped me through it step by step and here we are, doing great.”
Babin said it helped that she and the team’s other seniors knew each other through playing AAU ball.
“Being that I’d know some of these girls for a few years before, I knew the way they played, their mindset, their team mentality,” Babin said. “I was excited -- nervous excitement.”
Babin’s arrival also gave the Lady Lions something they haven’t had in recent seasons – a true post player.
“Now we’ve got Mae,” Balfantz said. “That makes it a whole lot easier. She’s like a wall.”
Babin is averaging eight points and 8.9 rebounds per game, an aspect she’s more than pleased to bring to the table.
“All of them can knock down threes,” Babin said of her senior teammates. “You’ve seen it in games. It just really brought in a whole new dynamic that we could work with, and I feel like it worked really well with us because we’re always ready to learn, ready to keep going, and it just allowed us to expand as a whole. It just gave us more options. It gave us more ways to work together, and I feel like that’s just made us even closer, just having more spots – more threats.”
Dannah Martin gave credit to her father, FSHS coach Daniel Martin, with putting the team on the right path this season.
“He’s done a really good job of teaching us how to be leaders, and I think that because of that, we’ve been able to have a really good, successful season,” Dannah Martin said.
In turn, Daniel Martin praised his senior class.
“You couldn’t ask for a better group of leaders, let me put it that way,” Daniel Martin said. “They take care of a lot of the things that a lot of times with a team as a coach you have to take care of. You couldn’t ask for a better group of leaders – great young ladies. They’ve all got a great future ahead of them. They just do all the little things – so fun to coach. They’ve all got different personalities … It’s just been fun. Sometimes coaching, you forget that part of it. They remind you of how much fun it can be.”
Before the season began, Daniel Martin said he was worried about ‘messing up’ what could be a special season for his seniors, and so far, his seniors have helped him a bit at times.
“There’s been a couple of losses to where I said that sometimes they play bad and maybe I can bail them out,” Daniel Martin said. “Sometimes I coach bad and they can bail me out. Sometimes we both do bad, and then there’s no bailing out. I think we complement each other, but they do more bailing out than I do, I can assure you.”
Because of that, the Lady Lions have their sights set on making a deep playoff run they’re hoping will end in a state championship.
“Me as a competitor, I say ‘win, win, win, win, win’” Smith said. “Honestly, I feel like we’re going to make it as far as we want to make it and as far as we have the drive to make it, so I feel like how far we go is up to us – up to our team. I believe in us. Why not us?”