By Rubin E. Grant
Perhaps no one on the Hoover girls basketball team took the Lady Bucs’ narrow 47-44 loss to Spain Park in the 2020 Class 7A championship game harder than Reniya Kelly.
This season, Kelly wanted to make sure Hoover wouldn’t have another disheartening end to their season.
The sophomore guard and team co-captain played like someone on a mission throughout the season. It was never more evident than in the Class 7A championship game when Kelly scored 24 points, made 10 of 11 free throw attempts, pulled down seven rebounds and had two steals to earn MVP honors as Hoover routed Hewitt-Trussville 61-37 to claim the title at Bartow Arena.
“It was very devastating when we lost by three points in the championship game last year,” Kelly said. “This time I wanted a blowout to redeem myself and the team. We played very well.”
Hoover coach Krystle Johnson said Kelly played with a different mindset.
“Her dad put up a picture of the second-place trophy from last year in her room, so she had plenty of motivation,” Johnson said. “The closer we got to avenging the loss last year, she turned it up a notch. In the championship game, she played like she was saying, ‘We’re not going to lose today.’”
Kelly averaged 15.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 3.0 assists for the season as the Lady Bucs finished 32-1. She was selected as the 2021 Over The Mountain Journal Girls Basketball Player of the Year in a vote of Over the Mountain coaches.
“That’s crazy,” Kelly said. “It just shows the hard work is paying off.”
Johnson was glad to see Kelly have a breakout season. She and the other coaches had urged Kelly to start taking over games.
“She is not a selfish player, but we told her she needed to be more selfish to help the team win,” Johnson said. “She plays point guard, but we had to get her to understand that we needed her to score more. She wound up leading us in scoring and assists.”
Kelly has been on the varsity since the eighth grade and was on Hoover’s 2019 championship team.
“I was nervous when I first joined the team, but I told myself they pulled me up for a reason,” Kelly said. “I tried to make an impact. I was blessed to be pulled up and be part of a championship team.”
Kelly plays the game with boundless energy and passion. Right after the Lady Bucs’ season ended she rejoined her AAU team, FBC United.
“I love basketball,” Kelly said. “It never stops for me.”
Kelly is one of four Hoover players voted to the All-OTM team. The other Lady Bucs are senior guard Jada Knight, junior forward Aniya Hubbard and sophomore center Kristen McMillian.
Vestavia Hills landed three players on the team, junior guard Emma Smith and senior forwards Alison Stubbs and Josie Edwards.
Spain Park had two players chosen, senior guard Avery Masdon and sophomore forward Haley Russell.
Two freshmen round out the squad, Oak Mountain forward Raegan Whitaker and Mountain Brook forward Emma Stearns.
Coach of the Year
Vestavia Hills’ John David Smelser was voted the 2021 OTM Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
Smelser guided the Rebels to a 30-4 record, but the season ended with a heartbreaking 48-46 loss to Hewitt-Trussville on a last-season shot in the Class 7A Northeast Regional championship game.
“That one is going to stay with me for awhile,” Smelser said.
Vestavia Hills had beaten Hewitt three times during the regular season.
Despite the ending, Smelser said he wasn’t going to let it detract from the Rebels’ phenomenal season.
“We had goals and aspirations to play in the Final Four, but the loss didn’t take away what we did all year,” he said. “I’ve been part of a lot of teams, but I don’t think I have ever been part of a team as special as this group.
“Our coaching staff was top of the line and our players loved each other and played for each other. When you have something like that, it makes it special.”