When Paul Laurence Dunbar senior Mashayla Cecil banked home a buzzer-beating three-pointer on Dec. 19 to stun then-No. 7 Simon Kenton in the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic she did more than just give the Bulldogs a marquee win over a top-10 team.
Her electrifying 30-point performance that night gave fans a glimpse into how an offseason spent dedicated to improvement can be transformative for a basketball player.
Cecil was Dunbar’s top scorer last season, averaging 18 points per game and playing a major role in a turnaround that saw the Bulldogs finish 19-12 and reach the 11th Region Tournament after going 11-19 the previous year. But this season, Cecil’s game has taken a huge leap forward. And so have her ambitions.
“I’d love to get 11th Region Player of the Year,” she told the Herald-Leader before a practice last week.
Noticeably trimmer and stronger in her senior campaign, Cecil is averaging 26.2 points per game and rarely comes off the floor for third-year coach Nick Runyon.
“You can just look at her minutes played this year. She only comes out if it’s a blowout. If it’s a tight game she knows to expect to play 32 minutes. She’s always played a lot of minutes but now she’s way more effective late. Her legs aren’t an issue in the fourth quarter at all,” Runyon said.
So, what’s the magic exercise regimen that helped Cecil sculpt herself into prime basketball shape? This season, for the first time, she joined the cross country team.
“It really has transformed her, she’s in the best shape of her life,” Runyon said.
A friendly endeavor
Cecil set some clear goals for herself this summer.
“I told myself I need to get more fit, I need to be quicker and faster, so I started going to the gym and working out on my own,” she said. “I got to where I was running like two-and-a-half miles every day. So when school started up I wanted to keep making myself run, so I decided I wanted to do cross country.”
But Cecil didn’t want to take on a new adventure without some backup. She convinced best friend and fellow senior starter Peyton Humphreys to trade basketball shoes for running shoes for a few months.
“I brought up the idea and Peyton was right on board,” Cecil said. “I told her how much it would benefit us and it definitely did. It was a lot of fun.”
Humphreys’ mother, who ran cross country herself, had previously encouraged her to take up the sport but Humphreys resisted. Friend proved more persuasive than parent.
“One day Shay just randomly texted me, ‘Hey, I’m doing cross country’ … and I was like, ‘You know what, I will too.’ From that point on we made it our mission. We were in it together.”
Humphreys said it was a fantastic all-around experience.
“We’ve always had a close bond but I feel like it brought us even closer. And we got to meet so many new people together. It was good, and she was really good at it … she was on varsity and I wasn’t, but I’m not that bitter,” Humphreys said with a laugh.
Stacking the record book
By the time Cecil graduates, her name will occupy a huge portion of Dunbar’s girls’ basketball record book. She broke the program’s scoring record, which Whitney Horn set in 1998, with a 25-point performance in a loss to Lafayette on Jan. 4. Cecil has now scored 1,856 career points, 75 more than Horn.
The Bulldogs will recognize Cecil’s scoring record with a ceremony before their matchup with Franklin County on Friday night. Horn will take part in the event, which will begin at about 7 p.m., directly after the teams’ junior varsity game.
Cecil also occupies the top mark in career three-pointers and career free throws by significant margins. She tied the school record of seven three-pointers in a single game as a sophomore. If form holds, she’ll eclipse Ebony Rowe’s record for points-per-game average in a season, which the former Middle Tennessee State star set in 2010 with a 21.0 mark.
Cecil has hit her career high of 34 points in a game three times, most recently in a 79-67 loss to Scott County on Jan. 9. She scored 29 points in a win over Estill County in the championship game of the Gateway Holiday Classic on Dec. 30.
So what makes Cecil such a prolific scorer?
“For one thing, she’s an amazing ball handler,” Humphreys said. “And in pressure situations she’s our go-to scorer. She doesn’t get rattled and she’s so confident in herself.”
Cecil said the game has slowed down for her significantly over the past few years, and that she’s learned not to fear a missed shot.
“I just know that everybody makes mistakes, so you can’t be afraid to take a big shot. And I actually like those pressure situations.”
The next level
It’s long been Cecil’s plan to play college ball, and her recruitment is heating up. Runyon said he’s been in contact with an ever-growing list of colleges and has been discussing with Cecil and her parents the process of lining up campus visits. Cecil declined to name which schools have offered her a scholarship, but mentioned she’d been in contact with smaller programs like Lindsey Wilson and Union as well as Division I schools Jacksonville State and Alabama A&M. She said she’d be interested in playing for the University of Kentucky but hasn’t been contacted by anyone affiliated with the program.
“It’s a stressful process but it’s been fun. I just want to keep all of my options open right now and I’ll make a decision when the season’s over,” Cecil said. “I just want to know that I’ll be a good fit, and it’s been fun listening to coaches tell me why they want me to play for them.”
Wherever she ends up in college, her current coach knows that her future coach will have found a gem.
“Any college coach would be lucky to have her. She’ll be an ideal player because she’s never gonna argue. She’ll take direction and constructive criticism and put that all to use by working on her game relentlessly. She’s a workhorse,” Runyon said.
Franklin County (12-6) at Paul Laurence Dunbar (9-7)