When the Columbus High girls basketball team plays in the Class AAAA state championship game against Redan on Thursday, there will undoubtedly come a time where it seems like nothing is going right.
Redan (33-0) is undefeated for a reason, and that reason will likely become abundantly clear shortly after the game’s 7 p.m. tipoff.
When that happens, Lady Blue Devils coach Joe Cherrone will look to two key seniors, who have been that calming presence throughout the team’s successful season.
Alexia Manning and Jacqueria Gunter are two of three seniors on a team filled with young talent. Three of Columbus’ key contributors are freshmen. One is a sophomore. So when the team needs players to lean on, it leans on the two four-year starters.
“It’s important,” Cherrone said. “They’re four-year starters. They started from the bottom. They didn’t have a great freshman year as far as winning goes. We’ve continued to improve over these past three years. It’s important when you get in those tough situations to have someone who will step up and say, ‘Give me the ball, I’m going to get it done.’ And they’ve done that in some big-time situations.”
Gunter and Manning are both the floor generals and two of the three leading scorers on the team. Manning averages 14.2 points per contest, while Gunter adds 11.1.
They have contrasting personalities on the court. Manning describes herself as feisty, Gunter more relaxed. Together, they form a combination that keeps the team on an even keel, which they say is vital to their success.
“I’m more relaxed,” Gunter said. “Sometimes we come out and we’re taking everything too fast, so I can kind of say, ‘Ok, let’s start over, take it back to the fundamentals and relax.’”
Manning, meanwhile likes to come out in a higher gear. She sets the tone, she said, whether in a practice or in a game.
“No matter what frame of mind they’re in when they come out, I have to come out in the right frame of mind,” she said. “I know eventually, if they’re not in the right frame of mind, if I come out the right way, they’ll meet me there. And when we’re all on the same page, we’re deadly.”
Together, those contrasting leadership styles put the rest of the team at the proper level for elite competition.
“We’re different,” Manning said. “Sometimes I need to relax and sometimes she needs to get fired up, so it balances out.”
While both players also rely on their younger counterparts, they know there will be more opportunities for them in the future. With a talented nucleus, the Lady Blue Devils figure to be in the state conversation for a few years to come. Meanwhile, this is the first and only opportunity for the seniors to leave their mark on the school.
It’s the first time Columbus has made it to the state championship game since 2004, when star Keisha Swanier was on the team. They lost that game to St. Pius X. A win on Thursday would be the first banner for the Lady Blue Devils.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Gunter said. “We’ve made it to the state playoffs before, but I’ve never come this far. It’s crazy. It was our goal at the beginning of the year. We knew we could be here.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Manning added. “It doesn’t happen very often. It hasn’t happened here in 10 years.” Just discussing the opportunity put a smile on their face. Cherrone said he hasn’t spoken to them individually yet about the opportunity in front of them.
“I haven’t mentioned it yet,” he said. “I told all the girls yesterday that they can’t be satisfied just being here. You have to want more. I haven’t sat down with (Manning and Gunter) yet, but I think they know how important it is. I know how important it is to them. It’s right there in front of them, and they just have to go get it.”
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