By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
COMSTOCK — It took almost a quarter century, but the Comstock girls finally put their mark on the basketball banner hanging in their gym.
They have to share the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Red title with Buchanan, but that is OK with them.
“It’s been (24 years) since Comstock girls won conference,” junior Ahkyla Blakely said. “I’m very excited. We’ll get our year up on the banner.”
With a junior and three sophomores among the starting five, one might have thought the team was in a rebuilding season.
But when it comes to experience, there is nothing young about this team.
The Colts have a 17-2 overall record, 9-1 in the conference.
The team may be young, but the girls grew up playing together in the youth program called “The Stampede” that started when the current sophomores were in fourth grade and with coaches that included Justin Ansel, the girls varsity coach for the last five years.
“Our junior class started when they were in fifth grade, so they grew up together with their class,” Ansel said. “Last year, the combination of the two classes, we had a whole year of playing together.”
This year, that experience is paying rewards.
Sophomore Daisy Ansel leads the Colts, averaging 15.2 points per game, followed by junior Blakely at 12.4 and sophomore Caylin Lopez at nine.
Ansel and Lopez also started last year as freshmen.
Abby House, who was pulled up from the junior varsity team midway through last season, is the other sophomore starter along with Blakely and senior Miranda Cannon.
Friends & Family
Having her dad as a coach can be both good and bad, Daisy Ansel said.
“It’s challenging at times, but it makes me better because he pushes me harder as an individual player,” she said.
“At home we talk about basketball all the time. It’s probably brought us together more as a family.”
Her brother, Seth, is a junior on the boys varsity basketball team.
Justin Ansel said the day his daughter does not feel comfortable with him as her coach is the day he will step down – as tough as that would be.
“We do have a relationship that at the end of every season I tell her if you don’t want me to coach any more, I’ll gladly step away and be a parent in the stands and support you in that respect,” he said.
“Each year, she’s always wanted me to be her coach. That feels good.”
He added that it is not just her he would miss coaching.
“You develop a relationship since fourth grade with these girls, and it’s not just your daughter,” he said. “I feel like I have a bunch of daughters out there.”
Senior Arreona Blakely said the turning point in the season was defeating Buchanan, 54-33, on Feb. 3.
The Colts lost to the Bucks 37-33 the month before.
“(Our win) was probably our best game, communication and defense-wise,” Blakely said.
She has no problem with her younger sister starting while she waits for the nod.
“I’m used to it,” the senior said. “It’s more I know my position, which is to be a leader and a communicator versus being the one out there scoring points. She’s more the athletic one versus me.
“I’m not really that athletic like her, but I’m good to support her. When she’s going through a rough time, I’m the only one who really knows how to pick her back up, spirit-wise, and get her going.”
Ahkyla Blakely said two things have helped the team improve from its 13 wins last year.
“It’s conditioning and practice,” she said. “Our coach makes us run these Sweet 16s every practice, and we’ve got to try to beat a time. He pushes us.
“We’ve been waiting for (last year’s) freshmen to come up, and now they’re sophomores and we’ve all been together for a long time. It feels like family.”
Daisy Ansel said the girls have a connection.
“We know who our shooters are, who we’re trying to get open,” she said. “We know all the plays. We have over 10 plays we can run against any team, and we all know them.
“When we’re out there together, we all just click like in middle school, and outside of basketball we get along.”
Ansel is a captain along with the Blakely sisters.
“Normally, sophomores aren’t captains, but going through travel ball has taught me so much, like the communication part of basketball,” Ansel said.
“I used to think you had to work the hardest and had to win everything, but now you’ve got to pump up everybody on your team to have the strongest practice. I work on giving more energy and communication in practice because it plays a bigger part than you think on the basketball court.”
House is a five-sport athlete, playing volleyball and golf in the fall, basketball and bowling in the winter and softball in the spring.
“It’s pretty tough between homework and all the practices and games, but I try to make it work,” she said. “Coaches work with me a lot.”
She said it is an advantage to have been coached by Justin Ansel on the Stampede team.
“He’s been our coach since we were little, so we know what he wants us to do,” she said. “He challenges us more because he knows what we can do.”
This season, “We’re generating a lot more offense. We’re all playing together as one team instead of as individuals, and our defense has tremendously improved since last year.”
Sophomore Madelyn Caswell is the tallest on the team at 5-foot-9, but “with my lankiness, my coach says I’m about 5-11,” she said, laughing.
Playing her first year on varsity, “The competitiveness is a lot more intense,” she said. “We have big goals and working to get there is a lot more competitive, and we’re a lot more driven than we were on jayvee.”
More to achieve
Comstock will host an MHSAA Class B District next week where it could face perennial power and reigning Class B champion Marshall in the second game.
“We play Parchment in the first round and if we win that, Marshall in the finals,” Justin Ansel said. “Marshall is very tough. We’re going to have to be fundamentally strong on both ends of the floor.
“Last year we got to Marshall in the first game. Four out of my five years (coaching Comstock), Marshall has ended my season.”
But the team entered this winter with high aspirations, and already has made good on making history.
“It’s something we talked about, but it wasn’t something we imagined doing,” Caswell said. “Throughout the season we realized we could make (winning conference) more of a reality.”
Marissa Vandyk is the other senior on the team. Juniors are Kierra Lovelace and Kaylee Gilley.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Comstock sophomore Caylin Lopez guards a Parchment ball handler this season. (Middle top) Comstock coach Justin Ansel and sophomore Daisy Ansel. (Middle below) Comstock junior Ahkyla Blakely and senior Arreona Blakely. (Below) Sophomore Madelyn Caswell (40) works to defend a shot. (Action photos courtesy of the Comstock girls basketball program; head shots by Pam Shebest.)