By Lee Davis
Although it’s been more than four years since Jessica Compton played in her first varsity basketball game at Vestavia Hills, the senior guard remembers the event as if it were yesterday.
“We were playing Homewood and when we went out for warm-ups, I had never been so nervous in my life,” she recalled. “I was so nervous, I was nearly in tears. Once the game started, I was able to control myself and help my teammates. I scored a few points and we won the game.”
What happened after the game is what really sticks in Compton’s memory.
“When it was over, Coach (Fran) Braasch came up to me and said, ‘You look like Jane, but you play like Tarzan.’ I’ll never forget that. Those words meant so much to me. Over the years, Coach Braasch and I have become friends.”
The compliment from Braasch, Vestavia’s legendary former coach, proved to be a premonition. Compton has been a standout for the Lady Rebels, and she earned All Over the Mountain honors in 2014-15. Her senior year may be the best of all as Vestavia’s strong early start against one of the state’s toughest schedules may portend a strong post-season run.
Going into the Thanksgiving break, Vestavia had posted a 3-1 regular season mark with a 1-2 record in tournament play.
“The biggest thing about this team is that we all get along so well,” Compton said. “We’re all really good friends on and off the court and there’s no tension between us. We’ve always helped one another out, and nobody has a big ego.”
Lady Rebel coach Laura Casey shares Compton’s enthusiasm about this team. “This is a group that from the very beginning has understood what we preach about the importance of commitment,” Casey said. “We have five words that we emphasize to our players every day: appreciation, accountability, toughness, enthusiasm and commitment. Those are our core values that have sustained this program through the years. Our team is playing together with a purpose and that gets me excited.”
Casey has more tangible reasons to be excited as well, including a strong senior class that includes Renesha Evans, Maddie Vernon, Katelyn Pickard and Samantha Salmon in addition to Compton. A talented group of sophomores – Maggie Mince, Taylor Wilson, Merritt Cahoon and Sarah Cain – also give their coach a reason to smile. Juniors McKenzie Jackson and Jasmyn White and freshman Courtney Milner are also solid contributors.
“All of our seniors have been terrific,” Casey said. “They all completed a leadership course that was strictly voluntary. They’ve been very unselfish in helping and coaching our younger girls. Any coach will tell you that they love to have seniors who are similar to coaches on the floor. We’re blessed to have that.”
Compton swings from the point guard to the two-guard position and said she enjoys playing both slots. “I really like shooting, which I get to do when I play the two-guard,” she admitted, laughing. “But there’s something special about playing the point. You get to see the entire floor and set up shots for your teammates to score. I see both positions as an opportunity to help the team.”
The numbers show that Compton is helping her team in multiple ways. She is averaging nearly 16 points a game, while shooting 39 percent from the three-point line and an impressive 78 percent from the charity stripe. Evans is Vestavia’s top rebounder, snatching 10 rebounds per game while averaging eight points per contest and shooting 40 percent from the floor. Cahoon averages seven points and shoots from the free throw line at a 70 percent clip.
But Casey – as is the case with most coaches – puts a heavy emphasis on defense, and so far the Lady Rebels are buying into it. They are averaging 11 steals and forcing nearly a dozen turnovers per game. “My favorite statistics are the defensive ones,” Casey said.
Compton said her success at the free throw line is a matter of concentration and routine.
“The free throw is the easiest shot in basketball because there’s no one guarding you. But so many teams lose games because they don’t connect on them in crucial situations, so it’s important to practice them and have a ritual when you go to the line.”
What is Compton’s ritual?
“It’s really pretty simple,” she explained. “I walk to the line and the referee hands me the ball. I flip it once. Then I take one dribble, and flip it again. Then I grab the ball and shoot. Everyone may have their own ritual, but this one works for me.”
Compton said the transition to her senior season wasn’t difficult from a leadership standpoint.
“I know more is expected because we’re seniors, but I think we’ve always tried to lead and help the girls with less experience. What kind of teammates would we be if we didn’t have that attitude from the beginning?”
While Compton would like to improve her shooting from the field, there is a team goal that overrides all personal objectives.
“We’d really like to make it to Jacksonville State and play in the state regionals,” she said. “We talked about that before the season and decided that needed to be our goal. Doing that would be one of the best ways we could make the statement that Vestavia girls basketball is getting back to where it used to be.”
Tradition is important to the Lady Rebel program. Braasch led Vestavia to many area and regional titles, Final Four appearances and the state crown in 1987. The Rebel gym’s walls are lined with championship team photos. And nobody understands the program’s legacy better than Casey, a former Vestavia player.
“One thing that’s unique about Vestavia girls basketball is that it’s like a family,” Casey said. “Coach Braasch comes around as much as she can, and she’s always welcomed. We don’t live in the past but our girls understand that this program is about the ones that came before them and what they accomplished. This team understands and appreciates that and is proud to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Compton was born in Tuscaloosa and moved with her family to Vestavia while in kindergarten. She touched her first basketball in third grade, when her parents signed her up for a youth recreational league. Although Compton was only eight years old, it was love at first dribble.
“Both my parents had played basketball in high school, so I guess it was in my blood,” she recalled. “All I know is I absolutely enjoyed playing from the first day.”
This season will be Compton’s final year of organized competition. “I plan to attend the University of Alabama and study nursing,” she said.
That fact makes Compton all the more determined to conclude her senior season with a bang. “I hope I can use my four years of experience to see the floor better and help our team any way possible,” she said. “And if we reach our goal of going to the regionals at Jacksonville State there’s no telling how far we could go after that.”
A Final Four appearance would be the next step, but Casey sounds like a well-known football coach when she describes her coaching philosophy. “We just want to improve every aspect of our game every day,” she said. “We want to do our jobs every time. Then we’ll look up and see what the scoreboard says. If we feel like we gave it our best shot, we can live with whatever the final score reads.”
If Compton has her way, the final numbers on the scoreboard will bring far more smiles than frowns. “I love playing with these girls,” she said. “There’s really no drama with them. We’re just working to get better and reach our goals.”
Jessica Compton may be too young to name a single actor who ever played Tarzan in the movies, but ever since Fran Braasch cast her in that role for Vestavia, she’s more than lived up to it.