January 5, 2022

With Players Adjusting Well to New Roles, Stuart Hoops Posts Encouraging 2-2 Start

GIFT OF GAB: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Gaby Velazquez brings the ball up the court in a recent game. Senior guard Velazquez has helped Stuart get off to a 2-2 start. In upcoming action, the Tartans Lawrenceville on January 6, St. Benedict’s on January 7, and Life Center Academy on January 11. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The “next man up” mentality, whereby a starting player can be replaced smoothly by a substitute, has become prevalent throughout the sporting world.

This winter, Justin Leith is employing a next girl up philosophy for his Stuart Country Day School basketball team in the wake of losing six seniors to graduation.

Getting off to a 2-2 start before the holiday break, the new-look Tartans are growing into their roles.

“We are relying a whole new group of people to be contributors,” said Stuart head coach Leith.

“They are forced to because there is nobody else and they have so it is cool.”

Sticking to the staples of the program has helped the revamped lineup come together.

“I am really happy that the culture has been consistent with essentially a new team,” said Leith.

“All of the small things that, when you start a new program, you forget. It takes time for your expectations to be met. It is small things, like making sure that the bench is alive during games at all times, that they are sprinting to the locker room at halftime and after the game and when they are substituting, making sure they are high-fiving the replacement. There were a few reminders early on but the girls embraced it. I think that is the reason we have won the two games that we have. It is the attention to detail and those small things go a long way.”

After losing its first two games, Stuart broke into the win column by defeating Solebury 57-26 on December 11.

“It was a good win. We came off of a game that we should have won the night before,” said Leith, referring to a 46-35 loss to New Foundations.

“We were up big, we were up in the first quarter and the second quarter. We just had a bad end of the second and third quarter and really gave the game away. It is hard to bounce back after games like that and I thought we bounced back well.”

Junior Emily Ix and sophomore Isabel Milley are making good contributions as they assume bigger roles this season.

“Emily and Isabel, they are really starting to come into their own and getting confidence, which is great,” said Leith, who got 18 points from Ix in the victory over Solebury.

“They are playing more minutes than they have ever had in the past. We know that they can play, but they have to develop that confidence playing in some games. It is fun to watch.”

Leith has had fun watching the development of sophomore guard Leila Washington.

“She has a responsibility, we need her to score the ball and we need her to guard the other team’s best player,” said Leith of Washington, who tallied 21 points in a 62-46 win over Trenton Catholic Prep on December 14 in the team’s last action before the holiday break.

“She has accepted that role, she has made the adjustment. It is her ability to get to the basket, finish to the right and finish to the left. She is shooting the ball better. She has always had a strong mid-range game, but in practice, she has put in extra time putting threes up, and I think that, come January, it should help and start to show up then.”

It also helps to have senior guard Gaby Velazquez back on the team after she opted out of last season.

“I think the TCA game was her best so far; she played awesome defense and had 13 points,” said Leith.

“She dominated the ball and made sure to find open people. She hit some open shots. That was actually one of the best games of her career.”

Another senior guard, Lauren Richey, is hitting her shots as well.

“Lauren is a pure shooter. I will put her up against anyone I have had in my eight years at Stuart,” said Leith of Richey, who tallied 13 points against Trenton Catholic.

“In practice, she will hit 10 three-pointers in a row. We have got to find her and get her open as more teams realize what she can do. That is the adjustment TCA made, they went box and one on her which was good, not necessarily for Lauren, but for some other kids who stepped up.”

Based on the way the players have adjusted to their new roles so far, Leith is excited about that lies ahead for the Tartans.

“That was the best feeling,” said Leith, whose team hosted CAPS Central High on January 4, and plays Lawrenceville on January 6, St. Benedict’s on January 7, and Life Center Academy on January 11. “From game one against Pennington to game four it is like wow every game, we have gotten better.”