By Gabriel Stovall
FOREST PARK, Ga. — Squirrel is the nickname you’ll often hear bandied about when people at Forest Park talk about Alexius High.
She’s the team’s lone senior, and while she’s in action she’s built the reputation over the last three years of being a hybrid of aggressive and unassuming.
She plays hard, but she seems quiet. But it’s the latter of that pair of attributes that has changed this year.
The 5-foot-10 wing player has been forced to become a do-it-all for one of coach Steven Cole’s youngest, most inexperienced teams he’s had in his seven year tenure. And although the role is different, it’s one she has wholeheartedly embraced.
“So far it’s been great, being that go-to person, because I’ve been able to lead the team and everybody on the team looks up to me,” High said. “So, so far it’s been a great experience.”
High, known as a spot-up perimeter shooter and traditional wing player in her previous years has had to abandon that role this season with the graduation of five seniors from last season’s 28-5, Region 4-AAAAA championship team and Class AAAAA Final Four squad.
Then there was the unanticipated transfer of senior point guard Tamecia Blue to Dutchtown. When Blue left, it left High to be the old, grizzled veteran amid a bunch of unproven and untested sophomores and freshman.
“When we first started off practicing together, nobody knew plays. Nobody knew drills. Some people on the team, it was their first time playing basketball ever,” High said. “But now everybody is starting to know their roles on the court. As the year goes on, I expect us to become a better and smarter team.”
Also expect High to have a growing impact on the Lady Panthers success as arguably the team’s lone difference maker. Case in point: In Forest Park’s season opening win last Friday against Morrow, High scored a game high 25 points on 7-of-16 shooting.
But in Tuesday’s 44-27 defeat at the hands of Mundy’s Mill, High went a paltry 3-of-12 from the field and finished with 12 points. In both games she combined her typical penchant for spot-up shooting with a newfound aggression to drive, slash and create her own shots.
It seems safe, then, to say that as High goes, so will go the Forest Park Lady Panthers — and that level of pressure, along with her vastly increased role on the team, is just fine with her.
“Bascially, because we had more talent on the team last year, we had people who could drive and create many different ways to score,” she said. “My job for previous teams was just to stand outside and shoot the three. Now that our seniors are gone, we don’t have the people who can drive the ball, so I just kind of stepped up and worked on that stuff. I’m not — I don’t even consider myself a spot-up shooter anymore.”
But she has no problem considering herself a leader — and a vocal one at that. It’s the part of her on-court demeanor that belies her innocent-sounding nickname.
High said she has worked hard to be the kind of “vocal, in your face leader” that this young crop of talent needs.
“If you were at practice, you’d see that I was in everybody’s face,” she said. “I don’t care how they react to it, because that’s my job as a leader. When we’re in school, I’m everybody’s friend. But when we get on the court, it’s serious. It’s get down to business time.”
She used freshman guard and promising scorer Sarah Matthews as an example. During a point in Thursday’s practice Matthews got a bit lethargic,”acting like she was tired,” and High lit in to her a bit.
“I just told her things I’ve went through,” High said. “I’ve been kicked out of the gym before. Coach Cole, he’s not the same as he was before. When he was in his ways, if you didn’t pick it up, he would kick you out of the gym. So I was like, ‘If you don’t pick it up, I’ll take over his job and kick you out of the gym myself.'”
Needless to say Matthews pace increased for the rest of the session.
“Afterward I had a talk with (Matthews) and told her I’m not here to yell at you or be mad. But it’s my job as captain to make sure you’re right on that court,” she said.
When High needs a little intrinsic motivation, she said she thinks back on past Lady Panthers like Kayla Potts, now a standout guard at Mercer.
“Kayla to me, as much as she’d been through, she always got in the gym and got down to business,” High said. “I looked up to her for that.”
And despite the greenness of this season’s squad, High said she also wants to continue the legacy of region championships and state tournament appearances founded by past teams.
“Talent doesn’t beat other teams,” she said. “It’s playing smarter than other teams. Our first goal is to win a region championship and then make into the playoffs. But we know other teams are looking at us now with even more of a target on our backs because of our inexperience.
“McIntosh, Drew and those teams. They feel like they can beat us now.”
Which leaves High with the chief goal of proving the naysayers wrong.
“What those other teams don’t know is we’re in the gym working hard 24-7,” she said. “So they might think we’re not the team we were last year, and that we’ll come out weak. But no. We’re going to come out even stronger.”