published Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Baylor four among area freshman stars

Baylor coach John Gibson (center) celebrates with the Baylor bench as the Lady Red Raiders defeat Cleveland in the championship game of the Best of Preps Basketball Tournament at Chattanooga State.
Baylor coach John Gibson (center) celebrates with the Baylor bench as the Lady Red Raiders defeat Cleveland in the championship game of the Best of Preps Basketball Tournament at Chattanooga State.
Photo by Robin Rudd.

Anyone watching the Baylor School girls' basketball team play may forget at times that half of the eight players in the usual rotation are in the ninth grade. Coach John Gibson included.

Yet there are other times he receives interesting reminders, such as one of his players raising her hand to ask a question or the team planning a post-practice pizza party after winning a tournament championship.

Baylor point guard Kaleigh Clemons, wing Crosby Huckabay, forward Abby Hubert and post Jazmin Simpkins are among a sizable group of area freshmen who have made impressive impacts this season.

Clemons, Boyd-Buchanan's Maddie Wright, Ridgeland's Destiny Irvin and Signal Mountain's Aryn Sanders lead their teams in scoring, although Sanders is currently out with an injury. Simpkins, Wright and Cleveland's Shawnia Anderson are team leaders in rebounding.

Akia Harris for GPS and Aizha Little for Arts & Sciences start at point guard and are second on their teams in scoring. GPS's Sydney Shutters and Silverdale Baptist Academy's Megan Lewis likewise have been immediate contributors on young teams.

Van Buren County freshman Lakelyn Bouldin made a splash as an eighth-grader by averaging over 20 points per game in the District 6-A and Region 3-A tournaments.

All their coaches rave about the freshmen's willingness to take instruction. Cleveland's Mindy Kiser, for example, calls Anderson "a sponge."

Freshmen playing immediately sometimes comes out of necessity. Their chance to get on the court quickly sometimes is aided by the level of play -- ninth-grade contributors are more common at smaller schools -- but just getting on the court shows the player has potential, regardless of position or school classification.

Four years ago, GPS coach Susan Crownover had four freshmen playing varsity. Their last two seasons ended in Division II-AA state championships.

"Nobody wants to have to do it," Crownover said. "It's a tall order for a lot of people, but when you have some that are super-talented, it's natural for them. Most kids don't get that opportunity, so if you are either starting or playing a freshman, they have a lot of basketball knowledge.

"There's a difference in speed and strength between high school and AAU basketball, because most of those [AAU] girls are still playing in their age group, but you're able to get the players game experience, and eventually you have players that aren't playing like freshmen come midseason."

As Crownover has done with Harris, Gibson has turned over the reins of his offense to Clemons, who averaged over 17 points and was named most valuable player of the Times Free Press Best of Preps tournament last week.

"I've just learned to be patient and confident with myself," Clemons said. "The team looks to me a lot for offense and defense, and I have to be poised and patient on the offensive end. When we beat Cleveland last week in the championship, a lot was because we sat back and played our game and let the shots come to us instead of being overexcited and jacking up shots."

During an early five-game losing streak, Gibson told the Lady Red Raiders that "we are going to win again. I just don't know when." Since then, they have won six of seven and are 8-7 after Friday's defeat of Battle Ground Academy.

They have pedigree, too. Simpkins' father, Dickie Simpkins, was part of three NBA championships (1996-98) as a 6-foot-9 center for the Chicago Bulls.

"We've been able to see what the competition is like at an early age," his daughter said. "We've been working together lately and starting to win some games that we wouldn't have won earlier in the season. We're still learning, but Coach has always had faith in us, because when we work together we can be an amazing team."

Gibson said that as the season has gone along, he has been able to ask more of each of his younger players.

"There's so much teaching involved that you have to give up mistakes," Gibson said. "I said at the beginning of the year that I was going to have to be patient. Missed layups? There's nothing I can do about it. Missed shots? Nothing I can do about it. It's all a part of growing up, but I just have to make sure that I'm coaching and teaching.

"I don't have to coach effort at all. I've been able to teach more. This team had no basketball IQ early in the season; now they do. As we go forward, this team will let me coach them."

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