A trio of Lady Tigers have taken on the leadership role this season.
They're not really all that big.
In fact, one of them is downright tiny.
And two of them are merely sophomores.
But for the Missouri Class 3 State Tournament semifinalist St. James High School girls' basketball team, they have been The Big Three for the 2012-13 campaign.
The trio of 5-10 senior forward M.J. Buschmann, 5-6 sophomore guard Alexis Uffmann and 5-5 sophomore guard Ashlee Marlatt are the unquestioned leaders of the Lady Tigers this season...on the court and off. They are the team captains and the team leaders on both offense and defense.
Buschmann is the team's leading scorer (16.6 points) and rebounder (5.8 boards). Marlatt averages 13.4 points and leads the team with 67 three-point baskets. And Uffmann leads the entire St. Louis area in assists at 7.3 while chipping in 9.0 points and a team-leading 4.2 steals.
Success for the squad begins with their performances.
The three were coming off a trying season. Buschmann missed the second half of the 2011-12 season with a knee injury which required surgery. That forced Uffmann and Marlatt into even more important roles while they were learning on-the-job as varsity freshmen.
Then came a stressful coaching change, which turned out to be not so stressful.
The new head coach, Terry Wells, hit it off immediately with the players.
"I knew he had worked at Newburg," Uffmann said of Wells. "And I noticed he always carried a towel around on his shoulder. With Coach Wells, now it seems like he's always been there. I love him to death; he's funny."
"I knew him a little; (his wife), Amy Wells was my volleyball coach at middle school. I knew he was a tough coach and I knew he had a heart for the game," Buschmann said.
Wells was an all-state sharpshooter at Belle High School during his high school days. But it's unclear if he holds the title of best shooter on this squad.
"Ashlee beat him in a game of PIG," Uffmann said.
"He likes to use the backboard," Marlatt explained. "I called no backboard when I beat him."
And as much as The Big Three had to become accustomed with their new head coach, Wells had to do the same with his new players.
"First was getting to know their games over the summer," Wells said. "I could see M.J. was okay physically and could see how well Alexis and Ashlee understood the game. That was exciting as a coach to see."
And Wells said it was very important to win over his team leaders.
"The three of those girls bought into what we were trying to do," he said. "That was so important, you need to have your kids to buy in."
The previous Lady Tiger head coach, Brad Conway, was hugely successful with the program, getting the squad to three Final Four appearances during a four-year period. And he used an aggressive, trapping defense which came to be the squad's trademark.
It just so happens that Wells brought an aggressive, trapping defensive style to the squad as well, although the execution and terminology of the two presses were not the same. Wells' trap is the one that has been used very successfully the past few seasons by St. James High boys' basketball head coach Ben Smith.
"It was kind of different," Marlatt said of the two defensive styles. "There is different stuff we do on defense now. They're similar, but different. I thought it would be difficult to understand, from this year to last year. But it hasn't been."
"The tempo is completely different," Buschmann said.
"Now it seems like we've been running this all our lives," Uffmann said. "Actually it's really nice to do the same thing that the guys do. You can go to Coach Smith or to one of the boys' players and ask them if you have a question about something."
"And at boys' games we'll be in the stands yelling at them when we see something," Buschmann said.
Early on The Big Three knew there was a chance this season could be something special.
"For me it was the first Blair Oaks game, when we came out with a 17-0 run," Uffmann said. "They were a very nice team and we were around 7-0 then.
"That was the game that said something to me," agreed Buschmann. "And also the Bowling Green game; they were a good team."
Then the rough stretch hit the squad late in the regular season. St. James dropped four of its final six regular-season games, including three losses to Four Rivers Conference teams, dashing their hopes of a league championship.
"We had team meetings," Uffmann said during that stretch. "They were tough teams we lost to. We had some rough stretches on defense. Then Coach Wells got a technical foul in our last loss. Since then our defense has really stepped up."
"I'm actually thankful," Buschmann said of the losing skid. "It showed us we're not invincible."
"Now we're taking it one game at a time," Marlatt said.
"It got us battle-tested," Wells said. "I think the girls did need that. We were 19-0 but were just surviving in some games. I think those losses re-focused us."
The fact that Uffmann and Marlatt are team leaders even though they are sophomores hasn't been a problem.
"Most of the team are sophomores and juniors," said Uffmann, the team's on-court quarterback at point guard. "And we had M.J. part of last year. I'm not afraid (of being a leader). It has really never been an issue."
"The girls get along really well," Wells said. "They understand and look to the sophomores for leadership."
The Lady Tigers have had to overtime size disadvantages all season long, and it will be the same against a much larger Cameron squad on Thursday. But they have overcome.
"We're small but we use our speed," said Marlatt, the smallest – and perhaps fastest – of the bunch.
"Rebounding has been a struggle all year," Uffmann said. "If we're going to win games we've got to rebound; Coach Wells tells us that all the time."
"It's kind of a cliche; coach tells us we're small but it's the size of the heart that counts," Buschmann said.
Now it's on to Columbia.
"We have two more games to win," Buschmann said. "Having the whole town behind you is great. But it is kind of stressful – you don't want to let them down."
"It's crazy, to only have a week left," Uffmann said. "I look forward to every, single practice."
Looking ahead, the squad loses Buschmann, who will likely earn all-state honors for her performance this season. However, a slew of talent returns, and the incoming freshman class next season figures to make an immediate impact at the varsity level.
"I think they will help," Marlatt said of the 2013-14 freshmen. "But when you are a freshman you have to make a big leap (to the varsity)."
"I think we'll still be good," Uffmann said. "We will need some people to step up to replace M.J."
And Wells says the sky is the limit for The Big Two who are returning.
"I don't think there is a limit," Wells said. "Both know they can get stronger. Both can fine-tune their games. We'll have a solid group around them in their junior and senior years, and that will help them a great deal. They're absolutely driven to be successful."
And his big loss to graduation – Buschmann – will do fine at the next level, her coach says. Buschmann is still unsure where she will attend college, although she is currently considering some junior colleges.
"It will depend on where she lands," Wells said of what position Buschmann will play. "I see her as a combo wing – a big three (small forward) or a small four (power forward). She has a game geared to be on the perimeter, but she also has an extremely strong lower body and can play inside as well."