Silverado girls inspired by coach

A head coach’s first season is usually challenging enough.

Trying to replace a well-known and well-respected coach and inheriting a team that advanced to the state tournament last season only makes the task more daunting.

Yet, Kelli Bray-Mathews couldn’t be happier just to have the chance to do all of that.

Bray-Mathews, who three years ago was diagnosed with brain cancer, begins her first season as Silverado’s girls basketball head coach. A former assistant coach with the Skyhawks, she takes over for Diane Hernandez, who retired after guiding the team to a 25-10 record and a Sunrise Region title last season.

“Without basketball, I probably wouldn’t have survived,” said Bray-Mathews, 39. “The kids were so supportive that they gave me the hope and the will to fight. To not be able to teach and coach again, I might as well have been dead.”

The large part of the fight is now behind Bray-Mathews, who said she’s now ready to lead a basketball team into battle on the court.

“I feel very strong now. I’ll be fine,” said Bray-Mathews, who still attended practices and games as her health allowed while she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the disease. She said results from an MRI conducted two weeks ago showed the cancer has “stabilized.”

Her fight should serve as motivation for her players.

“Everything she’s gone through is a real inspiration,” said senior post player Mikayla Thielges.

Silverado doesn’t appear to need any extra incentive. Despite losing All-Southeast League post player Jessica Schmidt to graduation, the Skyhawks return Thielges, a second-team selection, and second-team all-state pick Shea Collins, a 5-foot-5-inch junior point guard.

Collins had a breakout season as a sophomore, averaging 16.0 points and 4.2 assists per game.

“Her role as a leader on the floor will be crucial this year,” Bray-Mathews said. “I think she’s ready to take on that role. She’s versatile. She’s a triple-threat all the way around. The team really feeds off of her.”

The 6-1 Thielges will be the team’s top threat in the paint. Already a solid rebounder, she’ll be asked to shoulder more of the scoring load.

Thielges, who has a scholarship to play softball at Cal State Northridge, bulked up in the offseason and could become a force down low.

“She’s an incredible athlete,” Bray-Mathews said. “She has put on a lot of muscle. She’s a lot more confident. She’ll be that big girl for us.”

Sophomore Natalie Lainhart also should be a strong contributor at a forward position and could be one of the team’s top defenders.

“Our style is a little different this year,” Collins said. “We’re still learning and we’re young.”

Silverado should be a team that improves as everyone gets more comfortable with their roles, including Bray-Mathews.

And that wouldn’t be very different from last season when the Skyhawks lost twice to Southeast League regular-season champion Green Valley, then beat the Gators in the Sunrise final.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” Bray-Mathews said. “I know Green Valley is going to be strong. It’s going to be really tight on this side this year. We definitely want to defend our title. That’s our goal right now.”