January 27, 2021

After Producing Historic Campaign Last Winter, Stuart Hoops Looking to Keep Up the Momentum

A-GAME: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Aleah James heads to the hoop in action last season. Senior guard James figures to be a key performer this winter as Stuart looks to build on a superb 2019-20 season that saw it win its third straight state Prep B title and advance to the Mercer County Tournament final for the first time ever. Last Friday, James scored 12 points as Stuart topped Life Center Academy 57-44 in its 2021 season opener. In upcoming action, Stuart hosts Sinai Christian Academy on January 27, plays at Life Center on January 29, hosts Paul VI on January 30, plays at Trenton Catholic on February 1, and hosts Princeton Day School on February 2. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Last winter, the Stuart Country Day School basketball team produced an historic campaign, winning its third straight state Prep B title and advancing to the Mercer County Tournament final for the first time ever.

Having posting a 21-7 record and emerging as one of the top teams in the state despite having an upper school enrollment of approximately 160 students, tiny Stuart won’t be able to sneak up on anybody this season.

“The girls are on alert that we have a target on our back so the way to counteract that is to outwork them and to treat it the right way,” said Stuart head coach Justin Leith.

“That is part of the learning curve, it is not like we are an established New Jersey powerhouse for the last 15-20 years where there is a knowing there. We are in the infancy of being established so we have to come out every single game like it is the championship because that is how people are going to be playing us. That is a good thing, that is how you get better.”

Stuart features a very good point guard in senior Nia Melvin. “Nia has been our MVP the last three years and, of course, she looks great,” said Leith of Melvin who tallied 12 points and had five rebounds to help Stuart defeat Life Center Academy 57-44 last Friday in its 2021 season opener.

“She has definitely come a long way as far as her leadership. In the last couple of days in practice, I have never seen her so loud. She is getting on people, she is motivating. It is really exciting to see her really come into her own like that in her senior year.”

Another senior who has come into her own is star guard Aleah James.

“Aleah was our most improved player last year and has continued to improve,” said Leith.

“I have never seen a kid since I have been coaching that has shown a large improvement and a consistent improvement every year of her high school career. She is everything that you want as far as putting the time in. Every day she is in the gym getting shots up. It is a testament to her; she has not accepted that she is good enough. She constantly wants to get better and it has happened. She is finishing, she is shooting, and she is one of our best players.”

Junior Lauren Klein, who is returning from a leg injury, and sophomore transfer Kyla Glasser-Hyman give the Tartans depth in the backcourt.

“Lauren is back, she is 100 percent; I have never seen a kid ignore such a significant injury right away when she was cleared 100 percent,” said Leith.

“In that first practice, she hesitated once during a box-out drill and I haven’t seen any hesitation since. She is right back to where she was. We have a transfer from Hightstown in Kyla. She was Hightstown’s leading scorer and was on one of the All-CVC (Colonial Valley Conference) teams. She is from Japan and has only been in the U.S. for two and a half years. She is really going to help us.”

At forward, seniors Ariel Jenkins and Laila Fair will lead the way.

“They are both looking great, I think it is always nice when the commitment has taken place because they become more comfortable in their game,” said Leith, noting that Jenkins is headed to Georgetown to play for its women’s hoops team and Fair is going to St Joseph’s where she will be joining its basketball program.

“They are not worried about impressing, they are just worried about making the right play. Their skill-sets have improved. Most of the girls didn’t play AAU so they haven’t played in games since last March. They have been able to work on individual skills which you are able to see. It is just meshing the two.”

In terms of meshing the two stars, Leith will be utilizing their complementary skills.

“Laila is long, is athletic and can stay in front of people; she is more of a three (small forward) or a four (power forward),” added Leith.

“Ariel is more of a five (center). She can shoot the three-pointer a little bit and she showed that last year. They both have different games but they complement each other. Ariel really loves to have her back to the basket. Laila can do that as well but she will also face you up and drive by you. They play AAU together so they have played with each other and they pass really well to each other and play the high-low.”

Two other seniors, Catherine Martin and Molly Lagay, provide leadership and athleticism.

“Catherine is the heart of the team with her energy; she is an aggressive-minded leader,” said Leith.

“Molly is a tremendous leader as well. Molly is going to Tulane and Catherine is going to Cornell; that speaks to their commitment on the academic side. They are both three-sport athletes and so pleasant to be around.”

Leith is hoping that Stuart will have a chance to go for a fourth straight Prep B crown but even if it doesn’t, he will be pushing his players to keep up their intensity as the program looks to maintain its momentum.

“The last we spoke with the ADs, it looked like we had enough teams for a Prep B tournament even if it is just four teams; we might still have that so fingers are crossed,” said Leith, whose team hosts Sinai Christian Academy on January 27, plays at Life Center on January 29, hosts Paul VI on January 30, plays at Trenton Catholic on February 1, and hosts Princeton Day School on February 2.

“It is one day at a time and learn. First and foremost we are lucky to be out there but we still have to treat it the same way. We are going to be playing tough teams this season like we always do. We don’t know if we are going to get shut down, so we have to always be at our best and see what happens.”