Progressing on and off the court, senior Kaela Mullins has helped Sterlington to a 4-0 start in District 2-3A play.
Kaela Mullins' stat line in Sterlington's 73-56 victory over Madison on Friday night was a testament to her all-around play: 32 minutes, 15 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocked shots. On the other hand, the numbers only tell half the story of the 5-9 senior's contributions to the team.
"Kaela, in my opinion, has improved not only on the court, but off the court, leadership and attitude-wise," first-year Lady Panthers' coach Caroline Oliphant said. "She has become a more vocal leader, and she leads by example. She doesn't miss practice and she doesn't miss conditioning."
While leadership has become an overused term this day and age, it applies in Mullins' case. It's a role she embraces.
"My role on this team is to get everybody going," Mullins said. "As the leader of this team, if my mood is down, the team is going to be down. If I'm ready, the team is going to be ready. That's just how it is."
Mullins' play on the floor backs up her statements. With Mullins elevating her game to a higher level, the Lady Panthers are off to a surprising 4-0 start in district play."
"She's stepped it up a notch in district," Oliphant said.
Her teammates have followed suit.
"I told them at the first of the year that if we are going to make a run at district and on into the playoffs, we are going to have to have everybody 100 percent on board," Oliphant said. "Kaela's diving on the floor for loose balls, selling out for rebounds and doing the things none of us were doing at the beginning of the year.
"Kaela has really grown up. All of them have. You have to remember they were all a year younger last year."
Sterlington's season didn't start off so smoothly. Oliphant recalls a heart-to-heart team meeting in the midst of a 1-5 start.
"I told them at the beginning of year, that all it's going to take is for one person to step up and start doing the things Kaela is doing now and it will have a trickle down effect, and it has. We weren't getting that at the beginning of the year," Oliphant said.
A four-year starter, Mullins has always considered herself to be a leader. But, as a rule, people are more willing to follow a senior.
"I honestly feel like I have been a leader since my freshman year," Mullins said. "Somebody has to step up and do it. The difference is this is my last year. If we lose, we are going to lose giving everything we have. Nobody is going to out-hustle or out-work us."
These days, nobody is out-working Mullins.
"When you have your leader and one of the better players on the team willing to sacrifice themselves and do the little things that nobody really wants do to — that's when you start taking a step forward as a team," Oliphant said.
Oliphant had already recognized Mullins' potential prior to arriving at Sterlington by way of Beekman.
"At the beginning of this year and last year when I saw her play and coached against her, when the going got tough, I would ask, 'Where's Kaela?'" Oliphant recalled. "I'm not asking that anymore. You have to want to be that person that everybody looks for toward the end of the game. It's taken a little while, but she's gotten there. If it's toward the end of the game, you don't have to ask where she is or what she's doing anymore."
Friday night's game against Madison is the new norm. Every time the Lady Panthers appeared ready to put the game away, the Lady Jaguars would make a run. By the time the third quarter expired, Sterlington's 17-point lead had been sliced to six.
"Michaela (Waters) looked over at me at the end of the third quarter, and I said, 'It's going to be all right," Mullins said. "I wasn't worried because I knew we were going to make a run, too."
On cue, the Lady Panthers scored the first 11 points of the fourth quarter. Mullins set up Waters on the two-on-one break and made four straight free throws to ignite the run.
True leaders put the team first. Mullins is making the extra pass in an effort to get more people involved in the offense.
"Kaela is very unselfish," Oliphant said. "She's starting to play harder than I've seen her play in the past. She's playing a more complete game."
Though the Lady Panthers were playing better in the games leading up to district play, it was a 47-39 overtime victory over Carroll in the 2-3A opener that transformed the team's confidence.
"It was pretty big to win our first district game," Mullins said. "The Carroll game kind of got us going. That was our turning point because it proved we could win a big game."
The Carroll game also provided evidence of how far the Lady Panthers have progressed as a team. With Mullins sitting out nearly the entire fourth quarter in foul trouble, her teammates took up the slack. Waters finished with 14 points and Jayla Stewart scored eight of her season-high 13 points in overtime.
“Kaela could have sat on the bench and pouted about it, but she acted like a senior and put the team first,” Oliphant said. “Then she went back in the game and got it done. She had some big rebounds and made a big shot in overtime.”
Building on the Carroll victory, Sterlington passed a huge road test in a 57-52 victory over Wossman. Mullins made 5-of-6 fourth quarter free throws to highlight a 19-point effort and Jayme Broadway scored seven of her nine points in the final frame.
Sterlington has already doubled last year's district victory total after going 2-8 in its inaugural season in Class 3A.
"We're working hard and playing together," Mullins said. "Last year, we didn't work together and didn't think we had a chance in district because we were moving from 2A to 3A."
Mullins' balanced stat line from the Madison game is no fluke. She's a model of versatility.
"Kaela's big enough, strong enough, physical enough and athletic enough to do a little bit of everything," Oliphant said. "I can play her at any position on the floor. Her mentality is, 'I want you to try to guard me because you can't,' which is the way I want her to think. She can pretty much beat anybody I've seen us play off the dribble, one-on-one."
As an added bonus, Mullins understands the game.
"She has a high basketball IQ," Oliphant said. "If I have to tell her something during a game, she understands it the first time without me having to take the time to explain it."
Equally proficient in the classroom, Mullins has compiled a 3.7 grade point average, and finished the first semester with a 4.0.
Mullins' versatility isn't limited to the basketball court as she has earned All-District honors as both an outfielder and a second baseman in softball. She has also competed in track.
Her senior basketball season has the makings of something special.
"We're playing hard and we're having fun," Mullins said. "It's more fun when you're winning."