Named District Champs, ESJ Lady Cats enter playoffs with highest ranking in recent memory

Published 5:57 pm Wednesday, February 16, 2022

RESERVE — Recently named District Champions in 7-5A, the East St. John Lady Cats basketball team is sliding into the first round of playoffs as a No. 6 seed.

Head coach Stasha James said the team is having one of its most successful seasons in recent memory.

“Being ranked No. 6 means a lot. That’s the highest we have been seeded as long as I can remember. It’s the highest in the last 15 years for sure,” James said.

East St. John is entering the bi-district round of the Class 5A playoffs this week with a 25-3 season record. The Lady Cats will face No. 27 Live Oak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 17 at West St. John High School in Edgard.

Admission is $10, and James is looking for the entire St. John the Baptist Parish community to pack the gymnasium.

If successful, East St. John will advance to the regional round to face the winner of this week’s game between Southwood and Mandeville on February 21.

Junior Diamond Shorty told the community to prepare for a historic playoff run.

“We’re going all the way,” she said.

Shorty continued, “We have a good bond between the coaches and the players. The coaches push us really hard to be the best. This year, we’re working on transitioning through things fasters. I feel like that’s going to be what really helps us.”

Both the boys and girls basketball teams at East St. John have performed to high standards this year despite not having access to their home gym.

Hurricane Ida certainly threw a wrench in the preparation leading up to the season. The team got a late start with conditioning after all school sites were shuttered for more than a month. On the flip side, the girls put in more work than usual pre-Ida, especially during the month of July, which is normally dedicated to AAU.

Junior Jasmine Matthews was among the team members displaced from home for months after the storm.

“As a team, Hurricane Ida just made us work harder. We didn’t use it as an excuse,” Matthews said. “We’ve been winning a lot of games and getting a lot done. Everybody has a winning attitude. Everybody is pushing each other to be better.”

Making the Lady Cats’ success even more impressive is the fact that the team is very young. At least eight freshmen new to the team were introduced to high school basketball only a month before the hurricane.

Despite the youth of the team, James wasn’t surprised to see the program reach new heights.

“When my current juniors were freshmen, I said give it two years and we’re going to be something serious. The transition from junior high to high school is more demanding, so for them to go through it and get those two years under their belt makes a big difference,” James said.

Alysha Soniat is the only senior on the team, averaging eight points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals per game. She recently received her first full-ride scholarship offer from Delgado Community College.

“Being the only senior has made me step up to be a leader, be more vocal on and off the court, and set a good example for my teammates,” Soniat said. “My biggest accomplishment this year was winning district. I had two goals, to win district and win state.”

This year marked Soniat’s first basketball district championship for her high school career. This season has also been special because she’s gotten to play alongside her younger sister, A’myree.

According to James, one of Soniat’s big moments this season included scoring 17 points against Central Lafourche on senior night. She’s also a great defender who held a top Hahnville scorer to only two points. She made the all-district honorable mention list as a freshman before advancing to second team all-district and the defensive team during her sophomore and junior years.

Soniat plans to further her education in the nursing field, and she can see herself continuing to play basketball in college.

Meanwhile, James said Matthews and Shorty are integral members of the junior class that have stepped up and allowed the team to grow.

Matthews joined the 1,000 points club as a sophomore, and her total high school career points as of this week total nearly 1,700. She is definitely pursuing basketball in college and has received offers from Grambling State, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, University of Louisiana Monroe, and the University of New Orleans, in addition to inquiries from other schools.

Matthews is a two-time defensive MVP and a two-time first team all-district honoree, and she’s currently ranked No. 4 in her class in the state of Louisiana.

“This year, she’s more efficient. Her conditioning is better than it was last year,” James said. “Last year, she did a lot for us. She didn’t get quality breaks because she was always needed in the game. Now, we have girls who can give her a chance to rest. That’s helping her be able to perform better than last year.”

Matthews is a hard worker who doesn’t like losing. Her ability on the court shined bright when she scored 39 points and 15 rebounds against Ellender, one of the top-ranked teams in the state in Class 4A.

She’s also had the opportunity to play alongside her younger sister, freshman Tramaya Richardson.

Shorty is another rock-solid member of the Lady Cats’ defense. While track and field is her main sport and recently earned her a scholarship to Dillard University, she’s always ready to perform on the basketball court.

“In basketball, I’m very proud of my defense and how my energy is on the court. I’ll be able to uplift everybody and guard the best player out there. Before the game, I’ll check their stats and say OK, they’re not scoring more than 10 points today,” Shorty said.

In the past two years, Shorty has made first team all-district and the defensive team.

According to James, Shorty also suffers from shin splints and has put a lot of work into taking care of her body to be able to compete at the highest level.