Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 22, 2011



Coach Yussef Jasmine smiled as he thought about how far his East St. John Wildcats have come — not only this season, but since he took over the program as head basketball coach in 2007.

The Wildcats just keep making history under Jasmine’s watch.

In 2009, the Wildcats captured the first outright district championship in team history. On Friday night, they took it a step further – their dramatic 57-55 victory at Hahnville clinched a 10-0 final mark in District 6-5A, making this East St. John squad the first in school history to ever go undefeated in district play.

“That’s been our goal since the beginning of the season,” said Jasmine. “We had already won the first district title outright, but we wanted to make history in a different way.”

That, they have. East St. John may have crept up on a lot of observers after heading into district play with a record of 10-12. But upon closer inspection, the Wildcats record was deceiving. Losses came at the hands of powers like Riverside, John Ehret, St. Augustine and Brother Martin. Another came to Westchester, one of the top ranked teams in California. In many of these games, the Wildcats pushed the opposition.

“Those games taught us how to relax under pressure,” said Jasmine. “You play those tough games and you evolve from them, you get better. When we were playing in those tournaments, I told my team, ‘Fellas, these teams are peaking. We aren’t playing our best basketball yet.’ We want to keep getting better, keep going up into district, then into the playoffs, and keep on reaching higher to the championship game. Then keep on going to an even higher level.”

One major asset Jasmine wields at his disposal is the exceptional depth of the Wildcats. Starting swingman Joseph Williams averages over 15 points per game, but is the only Wildcat averaging in double figures. That’s because a different guy seems to step up every night. In Friday night’s game, Jasmine played 13 players. He believes that there isn’t much drop off from his first team to his second team, and said that being able to deploy so many players in the Wildcats’ pressing, aggressive defense serves to wear down opponents. East St. John has made fourth quarter closing runs a staple since the beginning of district play.

“Most teams might go seven deep, and of those maybe you’re talking about two or three really good players,” Jasmine said. “When you can make them account for nine or 10 real good players, it’s definitely an advantage.”

While Williams leads the offense, the anchor of the defense is 6-foot-6 sophomore center Elex Carter, who serves as a human eraser for any mistakes made by the perimeter defense. As such, East St. John can play passing lanes with reckless abandon, knowing that a gamble won’t usually equate to an uncontested score.

“When you can afford to put so much pressure on the other team, when you’ve got a big man protecting the lane and getting blocks, it’s tough to beat you,” said Jasmine. “When you’re forcing 20 turnovers a game and you’re often not even turning it over 10 times, it just gives you so many extra possessions and chances to build a lead.”

Carter said that he knows his main role is to be that defensive force in the middle.

“Coach tells us, play good defense and the offense will come. That’s what we focus on,” said Carter. “We practice more defensively than we do on our offense.

“I know that when our guys out on the perimeter get beat, for whatever reason, the team depends on me to be that last line of defense.”

A year ago, the Jasmine and his Wildcats dealt with a great deal of adversity. Jasmine was diagnosed with testicular cancer — he tried to coach through treatment, but ultimately he was forced to miss a chunk of the 2009-10 season.

“I remember a lot of guys were down. They didn’t want to see me go through that,” said Jasmine. “But I explained to them, ‘Fellas, people go through these things for a reason. It’s to make us stronger. And I’m going through this right now, I’m going to get through it, and it’s going to make me a stronger man and a stronger coach.’ People look at cancer and think, ‘It’s over.’ I never believed that.”

He persevered. He beat the disease and was issued a clean bill of health shortly before the end of the regular season.

At the time, the ever-confident Jasmine proudly said, ‘I knew this day would come.’ He’d call it an example of dominance — the Wildcats’ team that season sported T-shirts with the mantra, “Dominate is what we do,” something Jasmine said holds special meaning for him.

“To me, to dominate is to go into a situation where you aren’t expected to do something, then to do it,” he said. “When you’re expected to lose, and you win. You have your mindset and you do what that mindset says, regardless of expectations, regardless of the situation. When you have that in your heart, then nothing can stop you.”

That mental toughness has been passed onto his players. The Wildcats boast a roster full of athletes that excel in the classroom, including more than one boasting a 4.0 GPA of more — one of those, senior guard Sean Thomas, was recently selected as the St. John Parish High School Student of the Year. When they show up to road games, the Wildcats walk in unified, sporting dress shirts and ties, exuding professionalism.

“Some people have this perception of East St. John as a bunch of rough kids. We want to shine a positive light on the school, to represent it in a good way,” said Jasmine. “Athletics, academics, attitude, appearance, all of it adds to the overall character of your program.”

Guard Louis Williams echoed his coach.

“We don’t look at basketball as just a sport,” said Williams, who also currently boasts a 4.0 GPA. “This is all about becoming a man. We’re a family, and we represent our school. When we step off of the bus, we want to make a good impression and show that it’s not just about basketball, but about the young men and women at East St. John who are going on to one day be leaders in the community.

“It’s not just about athletics, but education. Without that, the athletics are worthless.”

Jasmine said that this group’s overall intelligence has been a big factor in its success.

“Their basketball IQ is just very high,” said Jasmine. “Sometimes you’ve got guys who are physically tough but aren’t mentally tough. These guys, you tell them something once, and they’ve got it. Then they go apply it on the court.”

East St. John will host its first playoff game against Southwood at 7 p.m. Friday. A potential second round game on the road at St. Augustine looms—the teams played neck and neck in the first half of their matchup on December 20 before the Purple Knights pulled away in the second half.

But this is a different Wildcats team, one surging with confidence.

“We’ve been winning these close games and they each bring us one step closer to a state championship,” said Joseph Williams. “We all believe.”