By T. Scott Boatright
The Ruston High School Lady Bearcats have overcome multiple obstacles in the form of season-ending injuries to reach the Division I Non-Select Girls Basketball Playoffs.
And it’s a junior, who has seen much playing time since her freshman season, that has been the driving force in leading the way for the Lady Bearcats into today’s playoff game at eighth-seeded Chalmette.
The last name of that junior has slowly but surely become a part of recent Bearcat athletics folklore.
Jaliyah McWain is the fourth in a line of RHS sports standouts, behind sisters Amani and Kiara, both basketball stars, and brother Jordan, a senior who earned all-state honorable mention as a cornerback on the football field.
But it’s just possible the McWain hoops tradition has saved it best for last.
“Jaliyah’s role for this team has changed from year to year,” said Lady Bearcats coach Meredith Graf. “But she’s always stood out. She’s got God-given abilities that most kids don’t have. Her speed, her knowledge of the game, those were evident right off the bat when she was a freshman. And those are intangibles — those things that you can’t coach.
“So as a freshman that’s what stood out about her. Then last year, her sophomore year, we had a pretty veteran team and I think she learned a lot from those older players. I think they kind of showed her a more business approach to a high school team. There were a lot of players around her that could challenge her and make her better. “
One of those players last year McWain learned from was fellow point guard Alexis Foster, who was a senior.
“It got to the point where we based it on the team and style of defense we were playing that decided who would play more at the point,” Graf said. “Alexis was one of those guards who lays back in the halfcourt and creates while Jaliyah pushes it and takes it to the basket and either puts up the shot or passes it off.”
Graf said that as this season started, McWain naturally took on a leadership role for the Lady Bearcats. And that was fortunate, because that leadership has become more and more important as the season progressed.
“She became more of a vocal leader, like a mental shift that she realized we needed her to be one of leaders,” Graf said. “That went all the way back to the weight room, and on the track. And as the season progressed, so did her leadership.”
That leadership became even more crucial as three key Lady Bearcats suffered season-injuries along the way.
“We lost two starters to ACL injuries, both in the same game,” Graf said about that game at Arcadia during which RHS lost both junior Zacheya Jackson and then junior A’niya Moore. “Those were players we were counting on. We were just figuring out who we are as a team and then that happened.
“And that rocked us. It took five or six games, at least to me, for us, to accept the fact that we didn’t have those players we were counting on anymore.”
Then, halfway through their district season, the Lady Bearcats lost sophomore Kiercynce McNeal, who at that point was the team’s second-leading scorer, to an ACL while working out one weekend on her own.
“So the team handled that well and have still played themselves into this position,” Graf said. “The biggest thing to me is the never-give-up attitude they’ve shown in the face of adversity.
“But Jaliyah’s had to take the load of ball-handling and scoring or creating scoring for other players. It’s no secret that our offense runs through her, but the level of trust in her has grown and grown. She’s handled every blow we’ve taken well and has learned to do whatever she needs to do to try and give us a chance to win.”
It seems that for McWain, who is averaging 15.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals per game, basketball is in her blood — her DNA.
Her sister Amani is a senior standout for Southern University. Her sister Kiara was a senior for the Lady Bearcats when McWain was a freshman.
“Our family is all about sports,” McWain said. “Everybody played sports. It’s in the DNA. We’ve been blessed and just all been given the talent to play the game we love. It helps give us motivation.
“Amani was one of the best in her class in Louisiana, and watching her was amazing and inspiring. And she still inspires me watching her play for Southern. I lean on her a lot for all kinds of knowledge.”
That knowledge, and her own drive and God-given ability, will play a key role as the 25th seeded Lady Bearcats head south today to play at Chalmette.
“We’re going to need Jaliyah to be at her best, and we’re going to need the whole team to feed off that and continue the improvements they haven’t stopped making so far,” said Graf.
“They’re not going to quit. They’ve shown that. They’re going to keep on fighting until the end. We’ve kept enduring so far, so hopefully we can do it again. One game at a time starting with Chalmette.”