One of the largest challenges most college athletics programs face every season is filling a leadership void presented by the departure of transfers and graduating seniors. This challenge is exacerbated in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related limitations placed upon teams and athletes.
The North Texas women’s basketball team is not immune to these problems, as the 16-woman program is left with five seniors and redshirt seniors, one junior and two redshirt juniors. One of these upperclassmen, redshirt senior forward Madison Townley, garnered immediate attention from her head coach, UNT alumnae Jalie Mitchell.
“If you ask every single person, the first name that you would hear is Madison Townley,” Mitchell said. “She just has that thing about her, she’s always going to work really hard. She’s always going to try to help us, she’s going to lead by example.”
Townley was recruited to the Mean Green by Mitchell during her first off-season, less than one month into Mitchell accepting the job. Mitchell accredits her aggressive recruitment of Townley to the forward’s work ethic.
“She had a seriousness about doing her job and doing it well,” Mitchell said. “She took on some of the toughest responsibilities defensively, she was willing to do whatever it took to win. She’s like the glue.”
Townley averaged 5.7 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game and shot 44 percent from the field in the 2019-20 season that culminated in a North Texas first-round loss in the Conference USA tournament to the Charlotte 49ers. She described her leadership as leading by example — doing the right thing in the classroom, locker room and on the court.
Senior guard Callie Owens was quick to praise Mitchell’s ability to build strong leaders and women.
“She cares about us personally, so I feel like that’s helped us a lot becoming a woman,” Owens said. “We’re in college and half the time, we don’t know what the heck we’re doing, so to have somebody to look up to that we can text or call whenever we need anything, that’s really helpful.”
While they do not get the spotlight of head coaches or star athletes, assistant coaches play a huge role in developing leaders and leading teams. This is what Mitchell had in mind when she hired Durmon Jennings to be an assistant coach during this off-season.
“He has great energy,” Mitchell said. “He is a team player and works really hard to be great at what he does. Every conversation we had, I left the conversation thinking, ‘I look forward to talking to him again.’”
Similar to Townley, Jennings described his leadership style as leading by example and demanding consistency from himself and from the athletes.
“At the end of the year, that’s what I want them to say about me. If nothing else, you were consistent,” Jennings said. “If you’re going to be a leader, a girl that talks every day, do that. Don’t come in and just talk three days out of the week. Do it every day. Lead people.”
Aside from the leaders, the most important component of leadership is being able to follow. Owens attested to the new athletes’ ability to come in and fit right into the system.
“I think our newcomers [and] freshmen are doing a really great job,” Owens said. “I think they’ve really stepped up and accepted the fact that they’re going to be a large part of anything we do this year. Everybody’s got a different style.”
Owens, the “mom of the team,” averaged 7.4 points 4.7 rebounds and started 14 games last season.
“I feel like my biggest role is in the locker room, making sure everybody’s okay,” Owens said. “Everyone always comes to me for classes like, ‘Am I doing this right,’ ‘Can you help me out with this paper,’ ‘Can you look over this,’ so I feel like that’s my biggest [role]: just to take care of them more mentally, physically, emotionally than basketball.”
Due to a positive test within the team, Owens and her teammates will be back to practice on Thursday, Nov. 19, following a two-week quarantine. With their first game right around the corner, the Mean Green are preparing for a schedule unlike line-ups of the past. Instead of a traditional mixed schedule consisting of varied matchups, North Texas will be playing each conference opponent twice in two days every weekend after an abbreviated pre-conference schedule that consists of Tarleton (Nov. 25), Texas (Nov. 29), Louisiana (Dec. 4), Texas-Arlington (Dec.18-19), Prairie View A&M (Dec.18-19) and Oklahoma State (Dec. 22).
Despite quarantines, delayed practice start dates, unique schedules and other challenges, Mitchell is not worried about the tribulations her team has been presented with and will continue to face.
“We’ve talked about [it] as a team, it’s not your normal season,” Mitchell said. “There’s probably going to be some adversity that we go through that we’ve never gone through before, but at the same time, adversity is still adversity, and it’s always how you handle it that makes the biggest difference.”
Featured Image: Redshirt senior forward Madison Townley looks for an open teammate during the C-USA Tournament against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on Mar. 11, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas