Champion Kennedy High squad is about quality, not quantity

Despite a small roster of six players, Kennedy High has stunned with a league championship this year. (Photos courtesy of Sal Morabito)

The Kennedy High girls varsity basketball team has just six players. In the last seven games, the Eagles roster was reduced to five due to injury – which of course has meant no substitutes.

This scenario only begins to explain the hype building around a team that just won a Tri-County Athletic League Stone Division championship after 22 wins and just 4 losses this season, including 12-0 in league.

A good way to sum up these Eagles? The 4-foot-10 guard Jermila McElroy, who despite averaging a handful of points per game was named the league MVP.

“She does it all,” Kennedy High Coach George Jackson Jr. said. “Only thing she hasn’t done this season is dunk the basketball.”

Bottom line: Kennedy High is having an outsized season. On Jan. 31, the team secured a league title after defeating Hercules 40-35. Tomorrow, the Eagles have a TCAL tournament game at home (7 p.m. start) and, looking further, they face a third season meetup with Hercules at St. Mary’s Saturday.

Their success with a small roster has stunned other teams and fans, including Kennedy High teacher Sal Morabito.

“These young Eagle ladies showed strong heart by not being discouraged,” Morabito said. “On the contrary they fought harder than ever.”

We all we got, we all we need

Coach Jackson has gained a reputation for developing winning teams – having now won five league banners in seven years while coaching girls and boys basketball also football at the school. This is his first year as the girls basketball coach. No matter the team, Jackson’s motto carries over: “We all we got, we all we need.”

The girls basketball program’s small roster is a clear indication that every Eagle has played a significant role, Jackson says.

Aiding McElroy is fellow senior Ukiah Ware, who has been a strong asset on both offense and defense. She’s the type of player who can both score and be relied upon to guard the best player on the opposing team’s offense, Jackson said.

Junior Ana Daniels has been the Eagles’ “energetic defender” who also chases after opponents’ best scorers. Ashanti Stricklen has been the team’s go-to rebounder and low-post scorer, along with Alisha Mauga. While Hadassah Williams didn’t play a lot of minutes early on, she’s become a good shooter and starter and “hasn’t looked back since,” Jackson said.

All about discipline

What’s different from last year, “I would say we’re more disciplined overall,” Coach Jackson said.

A news article last year criticized McElroy’s shot selection. Rather than focusing on scoring, this year she’s doing everything else. And it’s leading to a flurry of points on the board for the Eagles.

“She’s controlling the tempo, the game, getting a lot of assists, steals,” Jackson said. “She’s been the heartbeat of our team all season without even putting the ball in the basket that much.”

The Eagles’ goal this year was simply to be better than last year, to have no quit in them, and to play smart basketball. That’s exactly what has happened.

Another secret to their success?

“We have a strong prayer before every game, and we stay focused,” Coach Jackson said. “We don’t allow anything to sidetrack us at all. We go into every gym with something to prove. We don’t go in there looking at other teams. We throw the ball up and go.”

Their purpose is greater than them, Jackson said. Kennedy High doesn’t have the kind of equipment and amenities as private schools. But these kids still want to represent for their city, Jackson said.

“Like I’ve told them all year long; we plan to put this city on our backs, give this city something to be proud of,” Jackson said. “We’re keeping our grades, we’re playing good basketball. We’re working hard every day to be better.”

That’s all that’s needed.