November 28, 2018

After Rolling to Prep B Crown Last Season, Stuart Hoops Has Pieces in Place to be Great

IN CHARGE: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Nia Melvin heads to the hoop in a game last winter. Sophomore star Melvin will be counted on to the trigger the Stuart offense this winter. The Tartans were slated to tip off their 2018-19 season by hosting Springside Chestnut Hill (Pa.) on November 27 and then competing in the Peddie School Invitational from November 30-December 1 and playing at Hun on December 4. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Understandably, there is a positive vibe around the Stuart Country Day School basketball team as it prepares to start the 2018-19 campaign.

Coming off a memorable winter which saw Stuart roll to its first state Prep B title and with most of its starters returning and the arrival of some talented newcomers, the Tartans are in a very good place.

“The girls are getting along great,” said Stuart head coach Justin Leith, who led the Tartans to a 17-8 record last winter.

“It is year two for a lot of them and we have some new pieces; everyone seems to be on the same page.”

Stuart features two key pieces in the frontcourt in senior star Bey-Shana Clark and junior transfer Laila Fair.

“Bey-Shana is looking great. She is the same old Bey; I am expecting a lot from her,” said Leith, who will also be using a pair of sophomores, Catherine Martin and Jasmine Lewis, at forward.

“Laila is 6’3 and is able to play closer to the basket. She has allowed Bey Shana to really come out and not only guard but play in the wing which is fun for her and makes her even more difficult to handle.”

It will be fun for Leith to watch sophomore standout Nia Melvin run the show in the backcourt.

“Nia has gotten even better, now you remove the new school transition and this year she is really taking on a leadership role,” said Leith.

“She was our MVP last year. Even as a freshman, she came in and was able to get that. She is finishing better around the basket. She is shooting the ball a little bit better.”

The pair of junior Jasmine Hansford and sophomore Aleah James will be taking bigger roles this year in the backcourt.

“Jasmine has been great; she has been shooting the basketball well,” said Leith.

“She has also stepped up in her leadership role. Her and Bey are the only two upperclassmen that we have. Aleah James is a different kid this year; it is like having a new player. She is phenomenal, she is very difficult to guard. She is so quick, it is hard to to the ball from her. She and Nia have been sharing the ball handling responsibilities and that has been opening up Jasmine to have a little more time to get her shot off.”

Stuart boasts several other players who can share the load at guard.

“Molly Lagay is a shooter who got minutes as a freshman, and has demonstrated marked improvement in the off season; she exudes positivity and is a great teammate,” said Leith, noting that promising freshmen Catherine Johnson and Lauren Klein will also be getting minutes at guard.

“Gabriela Velazquez-Gonzalez was the starting point guard for Trenton High last year. She comes to Stuart with a year for varsity experience and will help with the ball handling responsibilities along with Nia, Aleah, and Jasmine.”

In Leith’s view, his players have a responsibility to make the most of their potential.

“I say to the kids every  day that we have all of the pieces to be great,” said Leith, whose team gets its 2018-19 season underway this week by hosting Springside Chestnut Hill (Pa.) on November 27 and then competing in the Peddie School Invitational from November 30-December 1 and playing at Hun on December 4.

“We have to stay healthy and we do not want to take our talent for granted. We want to go into practice every single day and work hard, work smart, and work together. That is what we have been driving home since the first practice – hard, smart, together. It has been working; they are getting that.”