Lady Rams enjoying the spotlight

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013



EDGARD — West St. John senior guard Jaylyn Gordon always says that when she and her teammates are having fun out on the basketball court, the game becomes easy.

On Monday, the Lady Rams seemed to be doing exactly that as they were all smiles during their first practice of championship week: On Thursday, West St. John will play in the first state championship game in the history of its girls program, set to take on Vermilion Catholic (27-6)  in the Class 1A championship, Thursday at noon, at ULM’s Fant-Ewing Coliseum.

To look at the Rams’ record this season, it’s not difficult to understand why they’re enjoying themselves this season. West St. John’s 31-1 record this season is impressive enough before considering that the Rams had  19-game win streak snapped in last year’s Top 28 semifinal; West St. John is 50-2 over its last 52, the type of dominating stretch that few teams have ever matched.

“Last year, we didn’t believe that we could win it all,” said West St. John freshman point guard Maya Trench.  “We weren’t supposed to get as far as we did. But this year, from day one, we knew we could make it.

“We’re gonna get it. I can feel it.”

Rams coach Lester Smith echoed his young guard’s thoughts, recalling the feeling around the team after last year’s 63-54 semifinal loss to Tensas.

“We shot 27 percent in that game, and we never shoot that poorly,” said Smith. “(The Ram players) knew they could play better. We were in that game … as disappointed as they were, I think they knew at that point that they could play with these teams and could play for a state championship.”

Smith has coached the Lady Rams for 27  of his 40-plus years at the school and is seeking his first state championship.

“My phone’s been ringing off the hook,” he said with a chuckle. “A lot of my former players have been calling to congratulate me, a lot of coaches … it’s really been fabulous. It’s the type of thing you think you’ll only dream about.”

A championship ring would be an especially sweet prize to Smith given his team’s journey over the years. The Rams hadn’t won a postseason game until 2008.

The program had to survive some lean years to get to that point.

“I remember a game where we had to play five because that was all we had,” he said. “The players that came before have a major hand in this success. They could have walked away and our program could have folded. But they wanted to play basketball.”

Said Gordon, “We want to get that ring for him.”

In 2009, Gordon came in as an 8th grader and made an immediate impact in the starting lineup alongside then frontcourt star Kyla Morris. A year later, the two led WSJ to its first-ever playoff victory.

Fast forward to today, and Gordon is an All-State guard, the first-ever Lady Ram to sign a Division I basketball scholarship (Louisiana-Lafayette). She’s led the Rams to three district championships—the first three in program history — and now back-to-back Top 28 appearances.

“Honestly, when I got here in the 8th grade, I didn’t think of it becoming this big,” said Gordon. “It was like, we’re just going to be the same old West St. John. But once JuJuan (Nicholas) came in, and then Maya, it started to feel different. It was more like, ‘Hey, we can get a ring.’’

Gordon averages over 22 points per game, and that numbers has spiked up this postseason, culminating with her 32-point outburst against Central Catholic in the state semifinal that highlighted her well-rounded game: four 3-pointers, a perfect 12-for-12 at the foul line, 12 rebounds and three steals.

“We’ve had talented guards before, but Jaylyn’s knowledge of the game makes her so special,” said Smith. “She can see things and adjust to it before anyone else. Her passing ability is tremendous and she’s always looking to set others up.”

Gordon’s unselfishness is shared by her teammates and it’s made West St. John a terror to guard for opposing teams, as the multitalented Rams can hurt a defense in a variety of ways. The ball always seems to be on the move.

“We play off of one another,” said Trench, who is also Gordon’s cousin. ”If they’re going out to stop Jaylyn, I’ve got to step up and vice versa.”

Central Catholic coach Jamaar Garrett said the Rams present an almost impossible cover.

“Not many teams have three guards (Gordon, Trench and Nicholas) like they have, who can all beat you off the dribble and shoot the lights out,” he said. “They make you pick your poison. You can either back up off them in a zone, let them shoot the 3 and hope they miss shots. Nine times out of 10, they don’t.

“Or, you can play man to man and they’ll beat you to the basket. You can’t sag off of them like you’d like to because of how well they shoot. They’re just a very good basketball team.”

Said Gordon, “We’ve got scorers here. If you can shoot, you can also get to the basket. Everyone can do everything.”

It became clear early on that the Rams were going to be a handful for defensive-minded coaches to gameplan when WSJ scored 89 points in an early win over Higgins and then 74 in another with St. Mary’s; there was no slow start or rust.

“We were setting goals for ourselves, trying to score higher and higher each night,” said Nicholas. “I think we’re doing so well because we keep pushing ourselves and pushing ourselves.”

Nicholas said that the atmosphere around the school has created a fun experience for the team.

“Every day, everyone’s talking about that championship game,” said Nicholas.

The high-powered backcourt of Gordon, Trench and Nicholas combine to average almost 50 points per game.

The Rams’ starting front court brings experience and physicality in seniors Donasia Bell and Deja Feist.

Bell’s improved 3-point shooting has made a big difference in opening up the floor the Rams, the type of “stretch four” that provides headaches for defenses.

“It’s been a big addition,” said Smith. “We always knew Donasia could shoot the ball, but she’s so unselfish. We had to get on her to shoot the ball more.”

Feist’s interior toughness and rebounding at center has likewise been vital.

“She’s done a great job on the boards for us. She gets those putbacks and handles a tough job inside,” said Smith.

Gordon said the biggest difference from this year to a season ago has been the team’s bench.

“Everyone can play. When someone’s off or goes out, we know we’re okay,” she said.

Second-seeded Vermilion Catholic is led by a strong interior. Kaylen Collins scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the team’s 44-31 semifinal win over North Central.

The Eagles are 27-6. VCHS split with Hanson and fell to Central Catholic this season, both teams the Rams defeated this postseason.

But it also boasts a strong pre-district resume chock full of wins over teams in higher classifications. The Eagles are 7-3 in games against higher classification foes that boastwinning records this season.