By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – Shania Meertens chased down the long rebound, split a pair of ASA-Miami defenders and was gone, her coast-to-coast layup capturing NWF State's fast-break mentality in Friday's 81-40 win at The Arena.
This was hustle personified. This was vintage Meertens, NWF State's minutes leader and stat-sheet filler.
Scorer, facilitator, rebounder, defensive specialist ... any label you throw at the 5-foot-8 sophomore seems to stick.
A transfer from Stetson, she entered NWF State this past offseason struggling with her shot. Yet 11 games in, she's averaging 10.1 points on 47 percent shooting and a 38-percent clip from beyond the arc.
Her four assists per game, meanwhile, give the Raiders a second ball handler behind Leandra Echi.
On the boards her 4.4 rebounds paint the picture of a guard who plays well above her height, and defensively she's feeding NWF State's transition offense with 2.3 steals per game. That includes 12 takeaways in her last three games.
Most importantly, NWF State coach Walker trusts her.
Her team-high 26.5 minutes per game symbolize that, which speaks to her versatility and ability to serve multiple guard roles and stay out of foul trouble.
"What we've done with her is allow her to play her regular game as a scorer," Walker said. "We've let her play the same game she played in high school. She wasn't a great shooter, but she could score.
Yet no big ego. The NWF State locker room seems to be devoid of those.
There's no infighting. No drama. Just chemistry and good vibes, the product of an 11-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking.
The latter designation provided an ego stroke for the Raiders, who for the first time under Walker are recognized as the top program in Juco.
"We're really happy to get that for him," Meertens said. "He's a great coach and he just helps me whatever I need help with. He helps me when I'm struggling on things.
"We're glad to make him proud and we're excited to continue the success."
Wait, Meertens struggling? Psh, that's news to the stat sheet.
Of course the success is so much bigger than her. And she recognizes that, the Raiders outscoring foes 84-45 on the strengths of 51 percent shooting, a plus-12 rebounding margin and 29 takeaways a night.
"We have a pretty good relationship we know what we need to get done," Meertens said. "We know that we all have the same goal. We want to get that title."
Well, titles (plural) – Panhandle, Regional and National.
But they'll have to navigate a Panhandle Conference that's never been more stacked – Tallahassee (10-0) No. 3, Chipola (12-0) No. 5, Gulf Coast State (7-1) No. 10 and Pensacola State (9-2) in the "Others Receiving Votes" category.
"We can't wait for the great competition. I'm getting antsy for Panhandle play," Meertens said. "Tallahassee won it all last year and we want to get that back and win it this year."
The national titles are what brought Meertens to Niceville. That and a needed change of scenery after following up a 19-point, six-rebound, five-assist campaign at Winter Springs High School in Florida with just 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds a night at Stetson.
"I needed a fresh start and I knew I could work on my game at NWF State and go to a bigger school," Meertens said.
"It's a big stress reliever," Meertens said of the signing. "Now I can just work on my shot in the gym and not worry about anybody watching me or recruiting me. I can just play my game."
And NWF State can reap the rewards, transition buckets and all.