December 4, 2019

Having Won Two Straight Prep B Titles, Stuart Hoops Looking Like a Powerhouse

B-LINE: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Nia Melvin heads upcourt in a 2018 game. Junior guard Melvin, who has helped Stuart win state Prep B titles in her first two seasons with the program, has emerged as a key leader for the squad. The Tartans open their 2019-20 season by hosting Kings Christian on December 4. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

While bombing three-point shots has become a predominant focus at all levels of basketball in recent years, the Stuart Country Day School basketball team will be employing a bit of an old school approach this season.

Featuring two forwards who are well over 6’0 tall in junior transfer Ariel Jenkins and returning junior Laila Fair as its starts the 2019-20 season by hosting Kings Christian on December 4, Stuart will be working hard to get the ball into the paint.

“We are putting in a new offense this year,” said Stuart had coach Justin Leith, who led Stuart to a 17-10 record last year as the Tartans won their second straight state Prep B title and advanced to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals.

“We have two very good post players: I wanted to design something that is post-oriented so we can take advantage of our size.”

The tandem of Jenkins and Fair is looking formidable. “Ariel was one of the top rebounders in the state last year; I think she averaged 16-18 points a game,” said Leith, noting that Jenkins has already received scholarship offers from Division I women’s hoops programs

“She is a really great scorer and rebounder. Laila is a 100 percent better. She is more athletic and she is able to put the ball on the floor. She is shooting the ball and playing good defense. She knows the system now, it is not new to her. She had a great summer on the AAU circuit and is really coming into her own.”

Leith has a third option in the front court as junior Jasmine Lewis is back to full speed.

“Jasmine is finally 100 percent; she is where she should be now for where we are in the season,” said Leith.

“She has been plagued by injuries her first two years and now she is everything we thought she would be as a freshman. She is scoring the ball well, rebounding well, and being a presence in the post.”

Stuart boasts plenty of scoring firepower in the backcourt in junior stars Nia Melvin and Aleah James. “Nia is looking great as usual;  she has stepped it up,” said Leith.

“She is being more vocal this year and holding the others accountable in practice, which is great to see. Aleah is now finishing. She had a tremendous summer in AAU and is really coming into her own. Before with her size, it was hard for her to finish. Now she is doing that; it doesn’t matter the size of the opponent. She is getting there and shooting better.”

The squad’s lone senior, Jasmine Hansford, is poised for a big season.

“Jasmine is looking to end her career at Stuart in an impactful way,” added Leith.

“She has been a pretty consistent shooter. Last year was pretty difficult for her at times but when it counted, she stepped it up. We always put her on the best guard, she is one of the best defenders. She is a great all around athlete.”

Sophomore Lauren Klein is emerging as a threat from the perimeter. “Lauren is a Princeton kid who went to JW; she is competing for a starting spot,” said Leith.

“She is shooting the ball well and playing tremendous defense. Last year, turnovers were a problem, she was a freshman and had nerves. She is a different player and she is going to be someone we will count on.”

The trio of sophomore Gabriela Velazquez-Gonzalez, junior Catherine Martin, and junior Molly Lagay can be counted on to give the Tartans good minutes in the backcourt.

“Gabby is back, she is a vocal person out on the floor,” said Leith.

“Catherine changes the energy in the room when she gets into the game. Molly is certainly more comfortable; last year turnovers were a problem for her and knowing where to be on defense. She has gotten a lot of minutes in each of our scrimmages and has gotten better and better.”

In Leith’s view, Stuart can get the most out of its depth this year by maintaining an unselfish approach.

“It is a selfless bunch, there is not one individual that feels as though she is the main person,” said Leith.

“In all of our scrimmages we had such balanced scoring. We have had seven or eight girls between seven and 15 points, and that varied from scrimmage to scrimmage. One person is not the focus of attention, it is nice.”