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High school basketball: Freshmen having a big impact on local teams
East Hall High freshmen Jasmine Jenkins, left, and Morgan Jackson warm up Wednesday before practice. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

In the annals of high school basketball in Hall County, there have been freshman who have stood out.

West Hall’s April Martin was a standout point guard as a freshman in the 1996-97 season before leading the Lady Spartans to the state semifinals as a junior. Gainesville’s Tasha Humphrey was not only the team’s leading scorer as a freshman, but led the Lady Red Elephants to the program’s second state title.

Last year, there was the Spartans’ Shunquez Stephens and Chestatee’s Peyton Robertson, who both made names for themselves as ninth graders.

It’s been a rare occurrence, however, that a crop of freshmen have had as immediate an impact as some of this year’s have.

There’s North Hall starter Kanler Coker and key reserve Lance White. The East Hall girls have two freshmen starters in Jasmine Jenkins and Morgan Jackson and the North Hall girls have six freshmen on their 13-girl roster, with upwards of three starting.

“In today’s society there are so many things for kids to do,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. “From text messaging to Facebook to all the video games they play, you don’t see as many true ball players out there.

“Those people who are really committed to being, what I consider, a ball player, are going to step up the food chain a little quicker because there are so many that aren’t.”

For Wood, Coker and White fit into the category of ball player to perfection. Coker spent the spring of his eighth grade year and the summer prior to the start of his freshman year lifting weights and conditioning with Robert Tate, a former strength and conditioning coach. White is, according to Wood, going to play in any pickup game he can find without being asked.

As a result, the two freshmen have worked their skills up to the point of being two of the best on the Trojans squad.

“It’s not rocket science,” Wood said, “the best players are going to play.”

But what is it that, this year, makes these freshmen some of the best?

East Hall girls coach Joey Rider points to the emergence of women’s basketball as a whole, whether it be the WNBA or college, as the possible reasoning behind the enhanced skill level of his freshmen.

“Girls are playing at a more intense level younger,” he said.

Wood thinks it’s the old school mentality of Coker and White.

“When I was growing up, I got up and played ball,” Wood said. “Today, kids are so interested in that instant gratification, so those who kind of are old school in that sense, are going to move up and these guys are like that.”

The selfless leadership of senior Ethan Satterfield doesn’t hurt either in the growth and maturation process of the freshmen.

“Ethan helps me out a lot, being a backup to him,” White said. “He just teaches me stuff and if I mess up, he shows me what I did wrong and tells me how to pick it up.”

While some coaches might coddle standout freshmen in the hopes of not discouraging development or encouraging burn out, Wood, Rider and Lady Trojans’ coach Bryan Richerson do not.

“I coach them like I coach everyone else,” Rider said. “It’s a challenge though because their skill level is so high that you forget they’ve never seen some things.”

Case in point, according to Rider, while playing Class AA’s No. 1-ranked Buford earlier this season, East Hall’s Jackson struggled handling the ball not because of nerves, but because she hadn’t faced a trapping defense as stout as the Lady Wolves’ defense is.

“The bigger the moment, the more they’re going to press and we have to tell them to focus on what’s important now,” Rider said. “It’s important that you bring the ball up the court without turning it over, not that you make an impressive pass at the end of the play.”

For White and Coker, not being treated any differently is the reason for their success.

“I like how (coach Wood) treats everybody the same,” White said. “If you mess up, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re coming out.”

“I’m great with coach (Wood),” Coker said. “I’m fine with the way he is because I don’t think I should try to act better than anyone else.”

Richerson takes into account the transition from middle school to varsity when coaching his girls, and that he has asked them to put it into overdrive.

His starting point guard, freshman McKenna Rushton, is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14 points per game and is also the team’s leading rebounder with nine per game.

“You have to get on to them when they’re not doing things they’re supposed to, but then you have to go to the other side and say, ‘I know you’re young, I know you’re going to make mistakes but you’ve got to learn from the mistakes,’” Richerson said.

The Lady Trojans first-year coach isn’t shy about saying that his freshmen, which aside from McKenna Rushton include Mary Kate Rushton, Taylor Swoszowski, Sarah Paschall, Tiffany Hamilton and Taylor Tate, play a valuable role in his program and ensure a bright future.

“These girls have been playing middle school and AAU together,” he said. “they know each other, they know each other’s style and they are going to be good.”

Rider echoed his cross-town rivals’ thoughts, but with the same work in the moment sentiment he tries to instill in his girls.

“The freshmen are good for our future,” he said, “But I’m not sold that they’re not good for right now too.
“It’s a long season and we still have a long way to go.”

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