Like a gazelle galloping through a meadow, Imani Perez maneuvers up and down the floor for the Mullen Mustangs.
Spry and strong, the slender 6-foot-3 sophomore standout of the reigning Class 4A champions is coveted by top Division I programs nationwide after her 11 point, 8 rebound-a-game freshman season.
“She’s the GOAT,” Mullen junior guard Abby Webster said, perhaps getting a little ahead of herself.
“She has all the tools,” Mustangs head coach Frank Cawley said. “She has a huge basketball IQ, she can shoot it, she can rebound and she’s incredibly coachable. For as talented as she is for her to be as coachable, she is a rare find.”
But when Perez is at the Hutchison Field House, all of the buzz around her washes away. Perez has played with this group of Mustangs since moving from Kansas as a pre-teen. The rest of her teammates have played together going back as far back as 4 years old. That includes returning 4A all-state point guard Megan Pohs and fellow junior captain Alexa Dominguez, a post player. The core of the team, the two pals have been teammates since first grade, with Pohs last year’s team leader in scoring and assists.
“It feels like at home playing with this group,” Pohs said. “It feels like a pickup game sometimes. I’m just having fun playing with my best friends that I have grown up with.”
The Mustangs are as much of a family as a team. The state title they lifted back in March? Yeah, they’d rehearsed that moment in a 24-hour Fitness gym. After those runs this past summer – with their feet kicked back — they weren’t shy talking about a possible three-peat.
“We talk about it a lot actually,” Perez said. “We have these group chats, and text randomly, ‘Guys we can do this.’ We’re the same team, nothing’s changing. We got it.’”
The Mustangs return 83% of their scoring from last year’s championship team and are loaded with talented juniors and sophomores. There’s nary a senior on the roster.
“We truly are the epitome of winning for everybody and it’s totally unselfish,” said Cawley, in his 11th year as the Mullen girls coach. “They’re in it for each other more than any other team I’ve ever coached. They truly do care about each other, that’s what makes this a really strong team.”
That resolve will be tested again this winter, with Mullen facing an absolute meat grinder of a schedule that features several championship quality opponents.
In the Centennial League, they’ll face the 2019 5A champions (Cherry Creek) and runners-up (Grandview) — the two authors of Mullen’s league losses last season. In addition, they’re included once more in Nike’s Tournament of Champions in Arizona.
“We’re not going to duck anybody,” Cawley said. “We’re good enough to play anybody on our schedule.”
What opponents will get is “just Mullen” — the team moniker from last year inscribed inside the Mustangs’ 2019 championship rings. Repurposed from smack talk, it helped drive Mullen’s success a season ago. This year, that motivation will have to come from within.
“If we think we’re gonna win, we’re not gonna win,” said junior Haley Van Horn, the youngest daughter of former NBA standout Keith Van Horn. “We try to stay humble about it.”