Smithfield girls undefeated in district

Published 6:55 pm Tuesday, February 15, 2022

By Barbara Boxleitner

Contributing Writer

Even with two NCAA Division I commitments on the roster, Derrick Gatling wasn’t sure how the Smithfield High School varsity girls basketball season would develop.

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The team didn’t play last year, and the first-year head coach started with just six players.

But the Packers have answered the challenges. Headed into this week’s action, SHS (17-1, 16-0 district) had clinched at least a share of its first Bay Rivers District title in six years.

The Packers also are assured of a top-two seed in the Class 4 Region A tournament. Finishing in the top two in the region tourney would put SHS in the state tournament, where the Packers are considered a threat to win it all. They entered the week eighth in MaxPreps’ Virginia high school girls basketball rankings regardless of classification size.

“I’m very happy with the girls,” Gatling said. “They’ve got a little sisterhood. They’re becoming good teammates. I’m very excited with the way they have progressed.”

Transfers Kyla Abraham and Jayla Hearp gave the coach a starting point to build a team. Both seniors are bound for Division I programs and were 2022 McDonald’s All American Games nominees.

However, seniors Kaniya Cromartie and Katherine Brady were there to assist. Brady, whose primary sport is field hockey, and Cromartie were on the junior varsity squad as underclassmen yet did not have varsity experience. “Having those two around helped,” he said.

With all the newcomers, Gatling assembled a varsity team that had 11 players as of Feb. 1. Starters and reserves have contributed to the squad’s success.

“The six players have been there from the beginning and going hard,” said the 6-foot-5 Abraham, who has committed to Baylor University. “I knew we would come through once we got some bodies.”

No. 62 on the 2022 ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rankings, Abraham averaged 18 points per game.

“She wasn’t really a scorer,” the coach said, adding that she’s become such a threat after improving her footwork and gaining confidence. “Sometimes I really have to rein her in. She likes to start (shooting) from the outside in.”

Abraham said she has been using the season to prepare for her college career. “Coming into this season, I wasn’t performing at the level I should have been,” she said. “With each game, it’s getting better and better.”

She averaged 13 rebounds, with a season high of 18 rebounds, Gatling said, and led in blocked shots per game. “I just go off instinct,” she said about the blocks. “Timing, that’s a really big thing.”

Point guard Hearp averaged 18 points and a team-high nine assists. “She can do it all,” he said.

Committed to East Carolina University, she said she has improved in “being a leader and being vocal” and in “passing the ball and making good reads.”

The presence of Abraham and Hearp has allowed others, such as Cromartie, to excel.

She averaged 12 points a game and cited her proficiency shooting mid-range to the top of the key. “Jayla’s passes make me think about how I’m going to score. They definitely make me more aggressive,” she said.

In addition, Cromartie averaged eight rebounds. “I didn’t think I’d be doing this much for the team,” she said.

The remaining games will give Gatling insight about the team’s finish. “We’ll see how we really look going into the playoffs,” he said.