Atmosphere around Mandeville girls basketball changing after 20-0 start _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ROD WALKER Mandeville's seniors on the girls basketball team have played a key role in the team's start. From left: Jannah Boudreaux, coach Melissa Weinmunson, Shantel Short, Sarah Jane Ladut, Elise Reilly.

The bleachers were empty in the Mandeville gym on Thursday as the Skippers prepared for practice.

There was a time four short years ago when the gym was just as empty for games.

“I remember when it was just our parents at the game,” recalls senior Jannah Boudreaux. “But now we have a student section. It’s surreal to be honest. It’s crazy to hear them screaming.”

This year’s Mandeville team has given its fans plenty to scream about, reeling off a 20-0 mark this season.

It’s a mark that has even caught coach Melissa Weinmunson a bit by surprise.

“Coming off the summer, we knew we had some good chemistry and girls stepping up, so I knew we were going to be competitive,” Weinmunson said. “But I just didn’t know where it would lead to. It’s inspirational because they just keep finding a way to win. Sometimes I just scratch my head and say ‘alright, we did it again.’ I knew we had talent, and I knew we could be competitive. I just didn’t know it could be something special like this.”

The Skippers, the top-ranked team in the LHSAA’s Class 5A power rankings, look to keep their perfect record intact when they host Slidell in a key District 6-5A game Friday night.

Expect another packed house.

“It’s been crazy,” said senior point guard Elise Reilly. “Normally it’s our boys team doing really well, but this year it’s the girls. Girls basketball hasn’t really been a big deal around here, so this is something we will remember for a long, long time.”

There have already been some good memories this season for Mandeville, ranked No. 1 in The New Orleans Advocate Super 10.

The Skippers beat Loranger, Weinmunson’s alma mater, in the season opener. They also boast wins over Mount Carmel (No. 2 in the Super 10) and No. 8 John Curtis. Last week, the Skippers beat nemesis Ponchatoula for the first time in Reilly, Boudreaux and Sarah Jane Ladut’s varsity careers.

Those three have played together since they were freshman. Shantel Short, the other senior on the team, joined them as a sophomore after transferring. They are joined in the starting lineup by junior Reilly Johnson.

“We have just clicked this year, like a family,” said Reilly, averaging a team-best 21.1 points per game. “Every year we have been close, but we have never been this close. We have just been together for so long and just have that bond and trust each other.”

Junior Caroline Fisackerly and sophomore Destiny Fazande provide valuable minutes off the bench for a Skippers team that has had success before.

They last reached the Top 28 in 2010 under former coach Troy Ricks. But the playoffs haven’t been kind to the team in recent years. Mandeville has been eliminated in the first round of the 5A playoffs the past three seasons.

But these days, every game is like a playoff game. That’s what an unblemished record does as the target on the Skippers’ back grows larger and larger.

“It’s been really stressful knowing that every team is coming after you full force,” Ladut said. “But we have kept a level head and kept our poise. If we are down in a game, we don’t doubt ourselves. We just keep playing like we do.”

And if the Skippers continue doing that, the buzz surrounding the program will likely continue, not just in Mandeville, but throughout St. Tammany Parish.

“It’s good to see people on the Northshore getting excited about girls basketball,” Weinmunson said. “It’s been more volleyball and girls soccer over here, so these girls are starting to change things. It’s a great feeling and hopefully we can build on this tradition.”

Keeping the perfect record would help.

But even better would be winning a state title, something Mandeville has never done in girls basketball.

“I don’t want to get caught up in the undefeated thing,” Weinmunson said. “It’s great, we’re enjoying it and we know it’s something that may not ever happen again. But I want the big picture. I know these games are helping get us to the big picture. But I want the big picture at the end.”