It’s a good thing that the Northwest Conference coaches didn’t pick the all-conference team in girls’ basketball by position, because Ayano Shelton would have presented a unique dilemma for them.
It’s certainly not because Shelton didn’t deserve to be on the team, but because what position would you select her for?
The official roster for the 2015-16 Mount Airy Lady Bears lists the senior co-captain with the dual positions of shooting guard and small forward. However, anyone who saw the team play during the season saw Shelton play all five positions on the floor, often in the same game. Coach Howard Mayo deployed Shelton—his tallest player at 5’10”—in the post against teams like Winston-Salem Prep and Atkins with tremendous size up front, but usually put her in the backcourt against teams from traditional 1A schools, where her length gave opposing guards fits.
“I played wherever they needed me,” said Shelton. “We played a lot of teams, like Prep and Atkins, who had a lot of size. It was a challenge, but I think it helped me improve my game.”
Despite spending so many minutes mixing it up with bigger and stronger players, Shelton averaged 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game during her senior season. She shot 46 percent from the field, 77 percent from the free-throw line, and averaged just 2.4 fouls per game while drawing strong reviews for her defensive effort, no matter who she was assigned to guard.
All of that hard work paid off last week, when Shelton signed her national letter of intent to play for North Greenville University on May 9. Interestingly, while a number of schools scouted Shelton during the Lady Bears’ season, the Crusaders weren’t among them.
“I’ve never actually seen her play in a high school game, but I’ve got all her games on film,” said NGU assistant coach Ross Jolly, who handled Shelton’s recruitment. “Once we got some film on her and got to talking to her a little bit, we knew Ayano was someone we wanted to add to our program.”
North Greenville, an NCAA Division II school which plays in Conference Carolinas, had to beat out one of their own conference rivals to persuade Shelton to sign on the dotted line.
“They actually came into the recruiting process later than some of the other schools,” she said. “I ended up choosing them over Lees-McRae.”
Fortunately, Shelton’s days of having to mix it up in the middle with larger players will likely end with the Crusaders, who project her to play at her natural shooting guard and small forward positions.
“It happens sometimes in high school that a team lacks size and you see a player like Ayano playing everywhere,” Jolly said. “I think it helped her to do a lot of things, and made her a better player.
“She will be playing at 2 or 3 for us, on a wing off the ball. I think it’s a good fit for our program and for her.”
Shelton, who was born on Okinawa Island in Japan, moved to Mount Airy with her father Chris, a U.S. Marine, mom Chika and brother Cole when she was two and a half years old. She took up basketball when she was in the second grade, and knew early on that she would like to continue her career at the collegiate level. Unlike a lot of other MAHS student-athletes, Shelton concentrated on basketball. She was on the Lady Bear varsity team for all four years, a starter for three, and all-NWC as both a junior and a senior. Shelton ended her career as one of only a dozen Mount Airy girls’ basketball players who have scored 1,000 or more points in their careers.
In her senior season, where the Lady Bears posted a 21-8 record and may have been the best traditional 1A school team in the state, Shelton cited the team’s battles with county rival North Surry and league rival Atkins as highlights. Early in the season, Mount Airy beat both teams in back-to-back games, with Shelton following her own miss with a last-second shot to defeat the Camels. She scored 17 of her team’s 49 points in that game. She faced Atkins two more times later in the season, performing brilliantly with 16 points and 11 rebounds in a homecourt loss in February, but had 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a victorious conference tournament battle with the Camels for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
“Those games with Atkins were all tough, and we were able to beat them two out of three,” she said. “I thought those were some of my best games. It was really great for us, as a team, to beat them and also to beat North Surry three of four in my junior and senior years.”
Shelton, who will graduate on June 11 with a perfect 4.0 GPA, plans to major in biology in college. Athletically, she will join a team that finished 11-18 last year, 9-13 in conference play, but which graduated just one senior.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.