By Rubin E. Grant
Several years ago, Spain Park girls basketball coach Mike Chase heard stories about a talented young player, so he went on a quest to see her play.
He showed up at one Over the Mountain recreational league game after another, hoping to watch her. But she wasn’t playing in any of the games he attended.
Finally, one night he asked someone where he could find Sarah Ashlee Barker. They told him she was upstairs in the upper gym.
When Chase walked in, he saw four boys teams practicing and at the opposite end of the court, he saw this one solitary girl – Barker.
“I had been watching girls teams and she was playing with the boys,” Chase said. “Not only was she playing, she was playing well and competing.”
Barker was in the sixth grade then, and the next year at Berry Middle School, Chase began coaching her.
“She was more physical and more advanced than the other girls because she had been playing with boys,” Chase said.
Barker has since stopped playing with boys – except in the occasional pick-up game – and has blossomed into the top girls player in the state.
This season, the 6-foot senior guard averaged 23.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals, leading the Jaguars to a 32-4 record and the Class 7A state championship. She had 11 points and 15 rebounds in Spain Park’s 47-44 victory against rival Hoover in the championship game.
For her performance, Barker is the 2020 Over The Mountain Journal Girls Basketball Player of the Year. It’s the second consecutive year she’s received the honor.
“First off, whenever I get an award, I look at it as a team award,” Barker said. “I thank my team. They’ve been with me every step of the way and coach Chase. I’m blessed. I wouldn’t be here without them and my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
Barker is joined on the 2020 All-OTM team by guards Reniya Kelly from Hoover, Emma Smith from Vestavia Hills and Caidyn Cannon from Homewood; forwards Madison Adamson and Aniya Hubbard from Hoover, Haley Russell from Spain Park and Kalia Todd from Altamont; and centers Hannah Edwards from Oak Mountain and Kassidy Schnoer from Homewood.
Vestavia Hills’ John David Smelser is the OTMJ Coach of the Year.
Barker finished her high school career with 2,222 points and 1,107 rebounds. Last week, she was named the 2019-2020 Gatorade Alabama Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“Sarah Ashlee is the best girls basketball player I have ever seen in high school and certainly the best player I have ever coached against,” Smelser said in a statement announcing the Gatorade Award. “She has all the tools to be a great player, but what makes her so good is her mentality. She refuses to lose.”
Last Friday, Barker earned MVP honors after scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds, leading the Alabama All-Star girls team to a 70-53 victory against Mississippi in the 30th Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic in Clinton, Mississippi.
An Athletic Family
Barker comes from an athletic family. Her dad, Jay Barker, was a national championship quarterback at the University of Alabama. Her older brother Braxton played football at Spain Park and walked on at Alabama. Her twin brother, Harrison, was the Jags’ starting quarterback last fall and was voted the 2019 OTMJ Football Player of the Year.
Part of Barker’s drive to succeed can be traced to the year when she couldn’t play basketball. She had two knee surgeries when she was in the eighth grade and missed the season. She couldn’t run for two months.
She was a different player upon her return to the court.
“When she came back, she had a hunger for the game,” Chase said. “I think she really appreciated being able to play again. She started training and working out harder and it’s just gone on from there.”
As a freshman, Barker was part of Spain Park’s team that lost to Hoover 51-47 in overtime in the championship game. As a sophomore in 2018, she helped the Jags win their first state championship and learned about being a leader from then-senior Claire Holt.
“Claire was a great leader, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps and lead the program,” Barker said.
Last year, Barker was the 2019 Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 7A Player of the Year, but the Jags didn’t advance to the state tournament, losing in the regional final to Hewitt-Trussville. That’s something Barker was determined not to let happen her senior year.
“This year I wanted to out as a state champion,” she said. “I can’t thank the Lord enough that I did. I also wanted to leave a legacy as a great player and a great teammate and pass that on to the younger players so they could carry on the tradition.”
Barker is headed to Georgia to play college basketball and she’s ready to accept any role.
“I started my whole high school career, but in college I know I have to start at the bottom and work my way up,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help the team, whether that’s being on the court or cheering from the bench. I just want to become a better player.”
Chase has no doubt she will. “Once she figures out the speed and physicality of the college game, she will make an impact because she has the tools and talent to be as good as any player on the court.”
Smelser Enjoys First-Year Success
Smelser guided Vestavia Hills to a 23-11 record in his first season at the helm, a year after the Rebels had finished 10-18. Four of the Rebels’ losses this season came against Spain Park, including a narrow 42-37 setback in the Class 7A Northwest Regional Final.
He was thankful for the coach of the year honor, but he said he wasn’t solely responsible for Vestavia Hills’ turnaround.
“That’s pretty cool, but I’ve never considered this kind of honor as an individual accolade,” Smelser said. “The girls and the rest of my coaching staff deserve a lot of credit. I’m proud for our program. To me this is important for the program.”