December 1, 2021

Losing Stellar Group of Seniors to Graduation, Stuart Hoops Will Be Featuring Bevy of New Faces

WASHINGTON CROSSING: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Leila Washington brings the ball upcourt in a game last season. Sophomore guard Washington figures to emerge as a star for Stuart this winter. The Tartans were slated to start their 2021-22 campaign by hosting Springside Chestnut Hill (Pa.) on November 30. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Over the last few seasons, the Stuart Country Day School basketball team featured a formidable inside-outside punch.

With the pair of Ariel Jenkins and Laila Fair dominating in the paint and guards Nia Melvin and Aleah James starring on the perimeter, Stuart won three state Prep B titles from 2018-20 and advanced to the Mercer County Tournament final in 2020 for the first time in program history.

With that quartet having graduated and Jenkins playing at Georgetown, Fair at St. Joseph’s, James at LIU, and Melvin opting not to play at the college level despite a number of offers, the Tartans will have a radically different look this winter.

“Everyone is excited, we have a lot of new faces,” said Stuart head coach Justin Leith, who guided Stuart to a 7-6 record last winter in an abbreviated season.
e have either inexperience or freshmen. It has been fun though as a coach, you are coaching different things, going back to more basic stuff. Even in a short amount of time, I am seeing them reaping the benefits of repetition. They are starting to get an understanding of the game which is exciting.”

As a result of the graduation losses, the Tartans will be employing an up-tempo style featuring interchangeable parts.

“We are tiny, we don’t have a backcourt or a frontcourt, we are just guards,” said Leith, who also lost valuable performers Catherine Martin and Molly Lagay to graduation.

“As a coach, I have always preached that we don’t have a system and then plug players into it. We coach who we have so we are able to be creative. My first year we had size and I know we had a year where we had no size at all. We adjust and we play to our kids’ strengths.”

Sophomore guard Leila Washington is poised to become a strong player for the Tartans.

“Leila is going to be our best player this year I believe, she is the most athletic and most experienced player,” said Leith.

“She is a year-round player, she plays AAU and everything. It was difficult for her last year, just jumping into playing. We had three girls rostered now on D-1 teams with full scholarships and Nia had plenty of offers. That is a huge challenge coming from eighth grade. This year, it is the other side where she is being more vocal. She has taken on a leadership role which I think is fun for her. It is fun to watch someone grown so much.”

It is fun for Leith to have guard Gabby Velazquez-Gonzales returning to the court after she opted out of last season

“Gabby is back, she is looking good,” said Leith, noting that senior guard Lauren Klein is currently sidelined due to injury and may be back later in the season.

“She worked out all season last year, her family had concerns with COVID. She is in good shape and looking good. She brings the most experience with the top level opponents that we had. She was able to play against some of the top teams in the state. She was getting playing time, which was nice. She and Leila will be sharing the one and two guard.”

Junior Emily Ix figures to get a lot of playing time this winter.

“Emily has been looking great, she is a great athlete and is just an awesome all-around kid with her participation in school, she is in every club,” said Leith of Ix who also stars in field hockey and lacrosse.

“She has played basketball the last two years, she played a little bit last year. She worked all summer, she came to the workouts that we had. She is really looking awesome, I am really excited about her and I think she is excited about playing a formative role on the team.”

Leith is looking for sophomore Isabel Milley to play a key role for the Tartans.

Isabel practiced with us last year, she was invited to come to games but she was hesitant because of COVID,” said Leith.

“She is a tremendous athlete. Once you point her in the right direction and show her some small things she is able to pick them up real quickly.”

Lauren Richey is another Tartan player who is poised to show her skills this winter.

Lauren transferred in her sophomore year and has been basketball kid, she is a gym rat,” said Leith.

“She is a great shooter. I think this year she is coming into her own. She has changed who she is defensively. She is going to hit a fair amount of 3s. She is a reliable kid and will have a large role this year.”

With Stuart slated to start its 2021-22 campaign by hosting Springside Chestnut Hill (Pa.) on November 30, Leith believes his squad should keep getting better and better as the winter unfolds.

“Defense is going to be a cornerstone for us, it is setting realistic expectations and achieving them and then setting new ones,” said Leith.

“From practice 1 to practice 12, the growth has been so significant that we have actually raised our expectations. Before it was like we will see where we end up at the end of the season. We are not going be a top 15 team in the state. We didn’t have that expectation at the start but all of a sudden it is can we be one of the best teams around locally. That is a possibility now. Things have to continue to progress in that direction. If the group jells in the way they have trended toward so far this year, it is going to be a real fun season.”