Northwest High School girls basketball coach Nicole Manuel certainly doesn’t want to devalue the talent her team possesses. The fourth-seeded Raiders (26-9) needed plenty of that to do something they had never done before last Thursday — punch a ticket to the LHSAA girls basketball tournaments.

But perhaps even more than talent, Northwest’s road to the Class 3A semifinals, where it will play top-seeded Loranger at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Rapides Parish Coliseum in Alexandria, was paved with a rare continuity that’s compensated for its the lack of seniors.

Manuel is only in her second year coaching at her alma mater, but her entire roster is made up of girls she either coached at one of Northwest’s feeder schools, Lawtell Elementary, or an AAU team she led in the summer, the Creole Blazers.

Coaching this group of girls on the high school level was something Manuel always envisioned.

“The vision at that time was to combine the two feeder schools for Northwest (Lawtell Elementary and Plaisance Elementary),” said Manuel, who graduated from Northwest in 2001 but never got beyond the second round of the playoffs as a player. “So that way, whenever they get to high school, they will have their fundamentals down pat, and they will be able to compete at different levels. So that was the vision a few years back. So I’m just blessed for the fact that, along with the girls playing for ‘X’ amount of years together, I can also coach them now.”

“I either had them (at Lawtell Elementary), or if I didn’t have them there, I had them with my summer travel team,” Manuel continued. “Either way it goes, the girls were competing together. So they have a bond. They have that relationship on and off the court.”

That chemistry has revealed itself over the past two seasons. Northwest reached the quarterfinals last year for the first time since 2012. After posting a 23-9 record in 2018-2019 regular season, including winning 12 of their final 13 games, the Raiders carried over the momentum into the postseason. In the first round, they put up 101 points against No. 29 Sophie B. Wright, the most points scored by any playoff team across the 12 brackets.

“Last year we were freshmen and sophomores. This year we’re sophomores and juniors,” Manuel said. “I have big freshmen this year, and the great thing about the freshmen this year, they played for me either whenever I was at Lawtell Elementary or my summer team. So in another words, hopefully this is not the (last) appearance Northwest will make (in the Top 28).”

Aside from making history, the 47-39 quarterfinal win against fifth-seeded South Beauregard last week had another special aspect for Manuel. Her daughter, Kaitlyn, posted a triple-double with 20 points, 10 blocks, 12 rebounds in the victory.

“One thing about ‘Ky,’ she’ll create for herself, or she’s not afraid to pass the ball. She’s not a selfish player,” Manuel said. “But a thing that really get the team going would be her blocks. Along with getting the team going, the fans get going, so everything just picks up.”

The Raiders withstood the Knights’ full-court pressure and, led by Kaitlyn and Mary Leday, smothered an up-tempo South Beauregard offense. Between Kaitlyn and Khali Malone, Northwest won the rebounding battle.

“She’s very aggressive,” Manuel said of Malone. “She knows how to use her body, and she gets plenty of rebounds as well.”

Wednesday’s matchup with Loranger should be strength versus strength. The Wolves excel in the backcourt, while the Raiders should have an advantage in the paint, Manuel said.

“I do know they have a great point guard, so that’s pretty much going to be a big concern for us — to make sure we can control her and limit the amount of touches she has on the ball,” Manuel said. “They’ve got a couple of other weapons, too. They’ve got a shooter that can shot from the corner. So we have a big task on our defensive agenda.”


Follow James Bewers on Twitter, @JamesBewers.