New Meridian girls basketball head coach looks for steady improvement as young Lady Jackets continue to grow up aiming to compete in District 20-1A play
MERIDIAN – With only three players who have ever played varsity basketball, the young and scrappy Meridian Lady Jacket basketball team entered the 2022-23 Texas high school girls basketball season with a new head coach and a lot of growing up to do.
But after opening the season with a nine-game losing streak, not only did the Lady Jackets finally claim their first victory of the year, they followed it up with yet another to make it a two-game winning streak. Before opening District 20-1A competition at Blum Dec. 13, the Lady Jackets (2-10) hit the road to play in the Santo Tournament Dec. 8-10.
Playing in the Gorman Tournament last weekend, Meridian opened with losses to host Gorman, 58-17, and May, 39-26, on Thursday, before closing out the tournament with back-to-back wins. Using a swarming, aggressive defense, the Lady Jackets rallied to edge the Bangs Lady Dragons, 27-25, for their first win of the season before dominating the Garner Lady Longhorns, 40-6, last Friday.
“I’m proud of the way the girls won their last two games in Gorman tourney with some solid defense,” Meridian girls basketball first-year head coach Matthew Butler said. “While there is no substitute for winning, improvement is always our ultimate goal. If we are improving daily, we will eventually reach our goals.”
In the defensive struggle, the Lady Jackets outscored Bangs, 9-5, in the final frame to pull out the narrow victory. Junior Canyon Stauffer and sophomore Mariana Paniagua led Meridian with eight points apiece, followed by sophomore Journey Stauffer with six. Junior Evelyn Dirkse led the Lady Jackets with six rebounds, while Canyon Stauffer dished out three assists and grabbed three steals.
Against Garner, the Lady Jackets jumped out to a comfortable 13-4 lead in the first period before taking command of the contest in the second for an overwhelming 30-6 halftime advantage. While Meridian continued to put points on the board, the Lady Jackets shut out Garner in the second half.
Paniagua led Meridian with 10 points, followed by Canyon Stauffer and Journey Stauffer with seven each while Dirkse added six points along with a team-high five rebounds.
The Lady Jackets saw their winning streak come to an end when the undefeated Aquilla Lady Cougars (9-0) used a strong second quarter to overwhelm Meridian, 59-34, Tuesday night in Yellowjacket Gymnasium. After battling in the first period, the Lady Cougars outscored Meridian, 18-3, to carry a commanding 34-13 lead into halftime before coasting to victory.
In the losing effort, Canyon Stauffer led the Lady Jackets with 14 points, three assists and two steals, while Paniagua and senior Erika Maldonado scored five points each and Dirkse pulled down a team-high six rebounds.
Despite the season-opening nine-game losing streak, Butler has liked what he has seen from his team from the outset. In the season opener against Axtell, the Lady Jackets used a tenacious man-to-man press to jump out to a 16-15 halftime lead. But the tall, experienced Axtell team with nine returning varsity players turned up the defensive pressure and effort to take control in the third quarter.
“Overall, it was a great effort and first experience for our very young team,” Butler said. “Looking forward to a lot of growth and improvement throughout the year.”
After losing to Frost, 48-28, Nov. 15, the Lady Jackets struggled in the Hamilton Tournament by losing their first three games to Zephry, 23-12, DeLeon, 42-23, on Nov. 17 and Cross Plains, 53-19, Nov, 18. But in their final game of the tournament, Meridian overcame a slow start to rally but come up short in losing 37-35 to Priddy. Dirkse led the Lady Jackets with 13 points, but Meridian sank only two of 19 shots at the free throw line in the two-point loss.
With a wealth of coaching experience and success, Butler began working his way up through the various classification in 2004 by rebuilding programs, making the playoffs 10 times, winning five district championships and advancing deep in the playoffs. After taking a two-year break from coaching, Butler returned to the profession in 2021.
Starting at the Class 1A McLean in West Texas in 2004, Butler made stops at Class 3A Hughes Springs and Class 5A Crandall before moving up to Class 6A Round Rock Westwood in 2011. In 10 trips to the playoffs, his teams were area finalist four times, regional quarterfinalist three times, regional semifinalist twice, regional champions once leading to a state semifinalist appearance.
“It’s our hope that every girl in our program will utilize this opportunity to grow and develop both personally and athletically,” Butler said. “We want to stress that each and every member of this program is valued and has a unique role to play in accomplishing our team goals.”
With his coaching philosophy being based on teaching “life” through the game of basketball, Butler’s favorite quote is “sports doesn’t teach heart and character – it reveals it.”
“Our ultimate team goal is to win the state championship while developing players who are capable of playing at the collegiate level,” Butler said. “Holistically, our ultimate goal is for each individual to reach her full potential while maximizing team.”
Photos by WENDY OROZCO
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