When Michael Stephens came to Zachary High to coach girls basketball two years ago, he planned to be an assistant under coach April Brown Barnes. He hoped to spend more time with his children, a daughter who is a junior at Central High and his 10-year-old twins.

However, two weeks before this season began, his plans changed when Barnes was reassigned and Stephens was elevated to the head coaching job.

Since then, he’s had to make a quick adjustment, but so far, so good. His squad was 14-8 heading into District 4-5A play, which began this week.

Stephens has the experience to guide the Lady Broncos. He coached at Baker for six years, including Class 3A runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2013.

“It’s been a little hard to deal with for the kids and for me,” Stephens said. “I’m obviously different; I’m a male instead of a female. There have been some other adjustments. Being an assistant, you’re the good guy. Being the head coach, I have the responsibility of getting on them and being hard on them.”

Stephens said he worked with Barnes to make the non-district part of the schedule intentionally difficult to prepare the team for a run at the district title and a deep run in the state tournament. They’ve had some big wins, and most of the losses have been to top five and top 10 teams.

The district slate began with a home game Tuesday against Central and continues with a road contest at Walker on Friday.

It’s a district rich in talent. Denham Springs has a statewide power rating of No. 6, Walker is No. 9, Scotlandville is No. 17 and Live Oak is No. 20. Zachary is rated No. 19.

“We’re 22 games in, so that transition is past us,” Stephens said. “Hopefully, we’ll peak in district. Every night is going to be a war.”

When Stephens accepted the head coaching post, he asked Jamar McKnight, an assistant with the boys team, to join him. McKnight, who played professional basketball overseas after a stellar career at Clemson, has been a great addition and a big help.

The Lady Broncos have a solid nucleus from the team that finished 21-11 a year ago and was three points short of a district title.

They’re anchored by 6-foot senior Tamia Veal, who is averaging four points and 12 rebounds per game. She was the defensive MVP in the district a year ago. The floor leader is 5-6 senior point guard Aleah Haynes. Stephens said he relies on Haynes to calm everybody down and make sure the team is in the right offensive and defensive sets.

Also starting are 5-5 sophomore Rayah Haynes, a defensive specialist, who was All-District last year and is averaging 13 points per game; 5-10 sophomore Bryanna Langford, who is averaging 13 points a game and is a great all-around player on both ends of the court; and 5-7 Ja’mecia Profit, who also can do it all on the floor, while averaging eight points per contest.

Coming off the bench are 5-10 sophomore post player Danielle Fleming and 5-4 freshman Mya McDaniel, a backup point guard.

The team plays primarily man-to-man defense, which sets up its running offense, although Stephens said they can play half-court when necessary. He emphasized toughness when he was at Baker, and he’s gradually instilling that philosophy into his Zachary squad, as well.

Stephens says he needs an off-season of work with the girls, including weightlifting and summer play, to really get them to understand the style of basketball he expects.

“We’re a running team with the focus on defense,” Stephens said. “We get up and down the floor as much as possible, but we can play half court because we have three girls that can score. We’re ready for our district schedule.”

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