Zachary girls basketball coach April Brown-Barnes knows all about competitive leagues. She starred during her college career at LSU in the rugged SEC and was drafted in 2001 by the Indiana Fever of the WNBA.

So she understands that in District 4-5A, any team, top to bottom, can defeat any other team on any given night. The Lady Broncos are in the thick of the district race with Walker, Broadmoor, Scotlandville, Denham Springs, Live Oak and Central vying for the top spot.

In The Advocate’s Top Ten basketball rankings for Class 5A and 4A teams, Walker is No. 1, Scotlandville is No. 2 and Broadmoor and Zachary are tied at No. 4 for the region. Those four teams also have top 30 power rankings in the state.

Zachary enjoying basketball success in such a competitive district is definitely interesting. But what makes the success of Barnes’ squad remarkable is the fact it features nine freshmen on its roster and the only senior is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Still, the team is in the thick of the district race, currently second behind Walker. Last week, the Lady Broncos defeated Broadmoor 49-42 in overtime and Scotlandville 46-45. Zachary is 15-9 overall and 5-2 in district. They played Live Oak on Monday night and face Central on Tuesday before ending the regular season on Feb. 12 against Walker.

Zachary’s Alyssa McKneely will be honored as the team’s only senior against the Lady Wildcats, and it’s camouflage night for Zachary, which is fitting because the game could be a war, with the two teams battling for the district title.

Barnes said the strength of her team is a balanced offensive attack.

“I have so many players that can score in double digits where it takes the pressure off some players,” she said. “Having several players that are capable of scoring is a plus for us. Another strength is that we are so young, I get them for another three years to build on from this season.”

Of course, that strength can also be a weakness.

“With nine freshmen … we can stand to improve in all areas,” Barnes said. “We definitely have to improve in rebounding as a team and also our free throw percentage. I think we are steadily improving, and I see us getting better as we continue to compete.”

The team is led in scoring by Bryana Langford, and Tamia Veal and Langford lead the way in rebounding. Barnes said the most consistent player on defense is Aleah Haynes, and she draws the toughest assignment every game guarding the opponents’ best players. Offensively, Barnes said, different players step up to the challenge.

Barnes said what helps her young team is that she and assistant coaches Patrick Jenkins, Michael Stephens and Troyletta Watson work hard to put their players in the best possible situation to be successful on the court. They break down film of opponents, provide a scouting report and work with each player individually.

The team has been able to maintain its focus. Besides youth and McKneely’s injury, Barnes missed a game due to a death in her family, and recently, they lost a former teammate in a tragic car wreck.

“The girls are continuing to strive to get better daily and that’s what we ask: Get better,” Barnes said. “We have had a lot happen to us this year, and for nine freshmen to stay the course with what we had to endure says growth and character on their part. … I am pleased with how they handled all this and still come out and compete at a high level.”

As for the district race, Barnes tells her girls that the only game that matters is the next one they have to play.

Playing in such a tough district will also prepare her team for the state tournament.

“I tell them, ‘Be better than you were the day before,’ ” Barnes said. “We watch a lot of film to help them see mistakes that we make so we’re able to correct them in practice.”

Those lessons will eventually pay off for her young team.

“I see they have gotten so much better since the start of the season,” said Barnes, who is in her seventh year as Zachary’s coach. “It’s big for them, but they are getting mentally and physically stronger. The future is bright for these freshmen by having that experience, and it is only preparing them down the road as they become juniors and seniors to see what it takes to be an elite team.”

Send sports news, photos and stats to Howard Arceneaux at harceneaux@theadvocate.com.