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Kassie Villars

Seniors Joyce Harrell, left, and Jayde Christopher are ready to defend the Lady Eagles’ legacy, despite having a new team and coaching staff.

Queens of the Court

Lady Eagles Christopher, Harrell ready to defend dynasty

December 5, 2014

The Lady Eagles started the 2013-14 season with high expectations: repeat as State Champions. The girls were ruthless in their quest for their second state title, eating their way through Metro League rivals while maintaining a perfect record against in-state opponents. The team got that sweet repeat, winning back-to-back state titles and solidifying Cleveland as a girls basketball powerhouse.

Teams are waiting for their shot to upset the Lady Eagles, and from the outside, they may look like easy targets. The team has several new players and a new coaching staff. Former Head Coach Stephenie Wheeler-Smith, who turned the Lady Eagles basketball program into an unstoppable dynasty, left the position for a job at the University of Oregon. Jamie Redd, a former member of the Seattle Storm, is the team’s new leader. Redd plans to capitalize on Wheeler-Smith’s tradition of building both academic and athletic excellence.

For years, all lights shined on the Fab 4: Myzhanique “MyMy” Ladd, Makala Roper, Alexia Mefi and Asiyah Davis, a quartet of seniors whose ball-handling skills led the team to victory. Their reign came to an end when the girls graduated this past spring, capping off their high school careers and leaving a spotlight for the last two pieces of the powerhouse to take over. It’s the passing of the crown.

Seniors Jayde Christopher and Joyce Harrell are the Lady Eagles’ new pair of royalty. Their eyes are set on more than just another trophy. They are determined to defend a 53-game winning streak in-state, refusing to let any invaders penetrate their nest.

When the pair joined the team as freshmen, there already was a winning streak to be defended. The girls have never lost a game in Cleveland’s gym.

“When I came in, I remember Coach Steph [Wheeler-Smith] saying, ‘Nobody has ever been into our house and beat us in our home,’” Christopher said.  The former coach’s words remain in her heart. “It’s like someone coming into your house and trying to steal all of your stuff. When I’m out there playing at home, that’s how I feel.”

Since then, the Lady Eagles have yet to lose against an in-state team.

“Since my freshmen year, we haven’t lost a game at home. It’s a tradition,” Harrell said. “I don’t think it’s ever been done – a player [going] four years without losing at home. It would be a nice record to put behind me and my high school career. I would be blessed to have that offered to me and to do it.” The last time Christopher and Harrell lost a game was in 2012, when the Lady Eagles fell 51-37 to Franklin in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs. They placed third in the tournament that year, beating Spokane’s University Titans, 50-40.

As the only seniors remaining on the team, the duo is coming out of the shadows to take a new team under their wings.

“It’s totally different from last year,” Christopher said. “Joyce and I have to step up way more instead of the younger kids who came in. Basically, we have to build chemistry. We’re getting the hang of it step-by-step.”

The holes left from the Fab 4 are deep, but not irreplaceable. Developing a sense of each other’s play style is an obstacle that the whole team faces.

“We lost four of our starters, so Jayde and I are changing roles and having to be leaders and learning how to work with other people that we haven’t played with before,” Harrell said.  “Last year, [everyone] played [with each other] since we were younger, so we knew each other. We knew how everyone played. This year it’s a little difficult because we have to adjust with different people and learning their style of basketball and that’s a little challenging.”

Players who didn’t see much action on the court last year also are stepping into their roles on the team. Twins Ryshel and Ryshun Sampson, junior guards, are expected to have bigger roles on the court. Junior forward Ti’Erycka Clark and wing Teja Kirby also are expected to be big contributors. These returners, along with three newbies and a lone freshman join Harrell and Christopher on their conquest for their third shot at the state championships.

“Even though we have obstacles to overcome, we have to overcome them as a team,” Ryshun Sampson said. Her sister agreed.

“Nothing is about me anymore, it’s all about putting them [team] first and making sure we have all that we need,” Ryshel said.

Though she considers herself to be a silent player, Harrell is committed to being more vocal leader this year on behalf of her new teammates.

“I’ve always had a leadership role, but this is bigger than the other ones,” Harrell said. “[My goal is] not to be negative, to be positive and to keep my team up. It’s going to be good for me, and I feel really good about it.”

Christopher also feels the pressure to lead the team this year. Like Harrell, she is prepared for the change of pace.

“Everybody wants us to go back-to-back-to-back three times,” Christopher said. “We should all push each other and compete [at] every practice and beat everything. Pushing ourselves and others, that will make us go far. Being a point guard, I have to be a leader. So I have to push them and be more vocal.”

Christopher and Harrell shared a remarkably close relationship with the Fab 4, but are ready for a fresh start.

“I’ve played with MyMy and Makala growing up when we were at Rotary. I got super close to Lexi [during our] freshmen year, and she took me as a younger sister. We’ve been best friends ever since,” Harrell said. “It’s been different, but we’ve learned how to adapt. Every year the team changes, so you always lose and grow new players.”

The seniors already are looking past the upcoming season and into their college careers. Harrell has made her commitment to Boise State University, while Christopher chose the University of Kansas. Both are attending their selected college on a full-ride scholarship.

“When Joyce was in middle school, she decided that she wanted to get a Division I scholarship to a college,” Harrell’s dad, Bruce Harrell said. “I’m very proud of how far she has come.”

Though moving forward, the bonds the state champions created two years ago are not forgotten. Getting another chance at the state championship is what keeps the whole team motivated to win. They are young, they are talented, and they are ready to prevail. Christopher has never lost her appetite to win. “We must remain Yungry.”

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