A stoic but watchful Shea Oman squares up in a defensive crouch as her opponent dribbles up the court.
Oman persistently swipes at the ball, unsettling the dribbler. At times, she feigns disinterest, allowing the ball carrier to let her guard down. That's a mistake.
Regardless the method she employs, it generally ends the same way, with Oman stealing the ball and streaking down the court on a fast break for an easy lay up.
In the four-plus years that the New London-Spicer point guard has manned the Wildcats' point, Oman is best known for her consistency. Those fast break scoop-and-scores are as routine as the pregame layup line. In fact, perhaps the only result more frequent than her fast break layups is a New London-Spicer victory.
Entering this season, Oman has helped guide the Wildcats to a 77-17 record and three state tournament appearances, two as a starter. She's been surrounded by plenty of talented teammates throughout her prep career, but Oman unquestionably runs the show, whether initiating the fast break with half-court outlet passes or setting up in the half-court offense to break down the opposing team's defense.
"I think I'm best at making the right pass," said Oman, who has committed to play at Bemidji State next year. "I see the floor pretty well and I like to drive and kick (to my teammates). We make eye contact and it's like, OK, we know what's happening. It's great to have teammates like that."
Her pass-first mentality explains quite a bit when looking at her career statistics. She has 977 career points, which might seem a bit low in comparison to her overwhelming talent on the court. It makes sense, however, when factoring in her 331 assists. She's often earning the unofficial hockey assist, as well, for making the pass leading to the official assist.
Oman, who leads the Tribune's girls preseason All-Area Watchlist, which can be found in the regular section of today's paper, doesn't spend too much time thinking about her stats. She admits it would be fun to average 25 points per game but would rather do whatever it takes to help her team. Ultimately, Oman doesn't stray too far from her favorite basketball player, Minnesota Lynx star Seimone Augustus. Both are hard-nosed defenders with a proclivity for winning.
"I love the way she dribbles and how she gets people off balance," Oman said. "She can score, too, but she does a lot of the little things really well."
Defending the GOAT
Oman remembers guarding former Wildcat great Taylor Thunstedt and, at least during those practices as an eighth grader, Oman may as well have been guarding Augustus.
"It didn't matter what I did, she could always score on me," Oman said. "It's tough, you want to get in her face and make sure she doesn't shoot on you but then she would drive right past me. She's the best I've ever had to defend."
In defense of Oman's defensive abilities, Thunstedt is the best that just about any area guard has ever had to defend. Thunstedt finished her NLS career in 2014 with 2,766 career points, the most ever by a Tribune-area athlete, and has continued to excel at North Dakota State, where she's a 1,000 point scorer and holds three records for most 3-point field goals made in a season (92) and a career (229), and most 3-point field goals attempted in a season (244). The cover of the Bison record book is a photo of Thunstedt shooting a 3-pointer.
Oman, who has 307 career assists, third-most in school history, looks back to guarding Thunstedt with reverence, but also with graciousness for not having to do that anymore. Those days in the gym paved the road for her aggressive style of defense.
"I played defense on her for one whole season and I learned about everything you could," Oman said. "She could do it all: dribble, pass, drive, and obviously shoot. I learned playing man-to-man on her and then also in our zone, just the simple things from a player that could do everything, was to square up and get low. No matter what Taylor did, she beat me every time. I learned to square up and get low, and have very quick feet because if I didn't I'd get beat every time she had the ball."
Listening to what's said, not how
Mike Dreier is the winningest girls basketball coach in Minnesota history with 864 career victories, so it's probably a good idea to listen to what he has to say.
Just maybe don't listen to how he says it. He can often be heard from outside of whichever gym his team happens to be winning in, and Oman, a quiet presence on the court, is generally speechless. That's not to say she doesn't appreciate it.
"He tells all of us at the beginning of each year, 'Listen to what I'm saying, not how I say it,'" Oman said. "(The yelling) doesn't bother me. He knows so much. He didn't win all these games by accident so I just tell (the younger players), 'Listen to someone who knows it all. If something happens you gotta shake it off, be chill. Don't take it personally.' And we don't. He's a great coach."
The on-court styles appear to clash but they actually are foils, balancing the other out for the rest of the team. Oman is always ready to back Dreier's message.
"Coach is amazing," Oman said. "He takes players and unlocks talents they never even knew that had. He makes all of us so much better."
What's a rebuild?
Oman is essentially the only player keeping New London-Spicer from an entire overhaul this season. But don't call it a rebuild.
The Wildcats graduated four starters last year and now have six freshman manning their 15 varsity roster spots. All but five players are sophomores or younger.
It's a young and inexperienced team and Oman is leading the charge for a third consecutive trip to the state tournament. Despite the turnover, neither Oman nor Dreier seem concerned.
"The group of freshmen are very close and us older players have played together for a long time so we'll have a mix of chemistry," Oman said. "We're going to click, I'm not worried about it."
Dreier, who has coached the Wildcats since 1978, has been through this before.
"We've had situations like this in the past, but this is probably the biggest turnover we've had," Dreier said. "It's a year of big unknowns. We had a good summer, a lot of players progressed a lot. All the kids back had significant playing time, just not necessarily at the varsity level. We're balanced enough, we'll be OK."
Regardless who's back, Oman has every intention of making it back to the state tournament for the third year in a row.
"Each team's goal should be big," Oman said. "Ours is to make it to state. People aren't expecting us to be able to do that but it's going to come along. We need to keep our eyes forward and get it done."