March 17, 2021

Battling a Gauntlet of High-Powered Foes, Stuart Hoops Displayed Competitive Fire

END POINT: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Nia Melvin handles the ball in a game this winter. Senior star point guard Melvin capped her stellar career by scoring 12 points and grabbing four rebounds in a 71-55 loss to Saddle River Day on March 4 in the season finale. Stuart ended the season with a 7-6 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Justin Leith will tell you that the most important stats produced by his Stuart Country Day School basketball team this winter were 51, 13, and 0.

“We had 51 practices and we were able to get in 13 games all in the midst of the pandemic and not one of our kids got a case,” said Stuart head coach Leith.

“There were exposures that took place but there was never a case where one of our kids tested positive. It is wonderful that we were able to pull this off. I am certainly proud of them. They were able to accomplish something, as did all of the kids did in the state and country that pulled this off, that no one ever has. They should be celebrated.”

Leith was proud of the way his squad competed in the last week of the season, losing two battles to Saddle River Day (75-61 on February 26 and 71-55 on March 4) to finish with a 7-6 record.

“It takes time to cultivate consistency, that is something we were able to do last year,” said Leith, noting that Stuart started 5-6 in 2019-20 before catching fire to end up 21-7, winning its third straight state Prep B title and making its first Mercer County Tournament final along the way.

“The last week of this season is where we had begun to cultivate the consistency of our work ethic. That is why we go up and down with Saddle River Day. They take the lead, we take the lead. We went up 10 at one point and they fought their way back. That is what happens when two very good teams are playing. It is a game of runs. I wasn’t worried about the win or the loss. I told the girls that we were really starting to come into our own where we are consistently working our butts off and there are no lulls. In those last two games of the season, we were getting to that place which usually takes place in December.”

Facing a gauntlet of tough foes helped Stuart raise the level of its game.

“We played two nationally ranked teams and plenty of other teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the state,” said Leith, whose team played such powerhouses as Manasquan, Trenton Catholic, Paul VI, and Rutgers Prep this winter in addition to Saddle River.

“We are getting to a point where we are getting more consistent. We are obviously a very talented team, that is what is going on in the moment during the season.”

Leith acknowledged that it was hard to reach that constancy in a season impacted by COVID concerns.

“I have been doing this for a long time and I know where you should be,” said Leith.

“Now you realize these other factors, not being in school, not going on trips, things that you don’t necessarily put a huge emphasis on are integral to success on the court. We are learning as we are going. To have a month of practice and all of a sudden we are shut down for a month and then turn it back up again, we had to be creative and think outside the box. At the end of the day, it is great that so many teams, not just Stuart, were able to have some semblance of a season because some people didn’t.”

Senior guard Aleah James produced a great finish to her Stuart career, posting triple-double with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in the first loss to Saddle River and then scoring 18 points in the finale.

“Aleah deserved every bit of it,” said Leith. “She undoubtedly has made the biggest stride every year. It is the biggest growth I have seen since I have been coaching, boys or girls. Every year she comes back better and better and now she is at a place where those D-I offers are coming in. She worked to get into that place.”

Over the years, the program has gotten great work from its whole corps of seniors which includes Nia Melvin, Ariel Jenkins, Laila Fair, Catherine Martin, and Molly Lagay in addition to James.

“It is a great group, they are a part of my first round of coaching at Stuart,” said Leith, noting that Jenkins and Fair will be continuing their hoops careers at the Division I level with Jenkins heading to Georgetown and Fair to St. Joseph’s.

“They won the three Prep B championships and two of them are 1,000 point scorers (Melvin and Jenkins). A.J. was almost there. Laila would have had it, she didn’t play her freshman year in high school due to injury. I think she ended with 700 something. They did things that no one in the history of our basketball program have done.”

Star guard Melvin was a standout from day one as a freshman, maturing into a superb leader.

“Her skill set certainly grew and her strength grew as a player but her leadership skills are what have developed over the last four years,” said Leith, noting that Melvin ended up as the program’s second-leading scorer behind Jalynn Spaulding ’18, who totaled 1,236 points.

“Coming in as a freshman, she was a very quiet kid. In practice what was really special was that she was demanding more of her teammates this year, picking them up. She is not necessarily a vocal leader although she was more this year. Her leadership style is pulling people aside and having one-on-one conversations with them and keeping everyone together. It was really something great to see. I never imagined that when she was a freshman.”

With such returning players as junior Lauren Klein, sophomore Kyla Glasser-Hyman, freshman Isabel Millier and freshman Leila Washington, Stuart has a good foundation in place.

“I am very excited, my expectation and goal is to be equally as talented as we are this year,” said Leith.

“I think we are going to be younger with some of the talented eight graders that we have coming up and some kids are looking to transfer here. I think the talent level will be there.”

In order to develop those younger players, Leith will have them face a challenging schedule to steel their competitive fire.

“When we were playing a weaker schedule, it would be easier to know that we were going to win a lot of games,” said Leith.

“We want to stay at this level and be competitive with the top teams. So we have to do all of those other things — bonding off the court, learning to trust each other, and holding each other accountable. All of those other things that come along with maturity and being together. It will be fun to start with a new group again. You get used to that level, whether you are going to win or not you don’t know but when you play a team that is more on the same level as you, we have the advantage.”