By Rubin E. Grant
Following their close 42-37 loss to Spain Park in the 2020 Class 7A Northwest Regional final, several Vestavia Hills girls basketball players went downtown to the BJCC Legacy Arena to watch the Jags capture the championship.
They wanted to see for themselves what it was like to win a title and celebrate it.
“Our team was so close to being in that position,” said guard Emma Smith. “Being there and seeing Spain Park win and how excited they were made us want to work hard to try to get there. It’s definitely been motivation for us this season.”
Vestavia Hills played inspired basketball throughout the regular season, posting a 27-3 record and winning the Class 7A, Area 6 title. The Rebels hosted Gadsden City in the area tournament Tuesday. With a win, they will advance to the Northeast Regional regardless of what happens in the area final.
The Rebels, ranked No. 2 in Class 7A, had a 15-game winning streak snapped in a 44-43 loss at Spain Park on Jan. 29. They had beaten the Jags 59-43 on Jan. 15. Vestavia Hills’ other losses were to No. 1 Hoover, 60-54, and Ramsay, 45-44. The Rebels also beat Ramsay, 65-26.
Second-year Rebels coach John David Smelser attributes the team’s success to a deep, talented roster.
“We had players coming back this season with more experience,” Smelser said. “We’ve got varsity kids in every age level. We’ve got an eighth grader playing, Jill Gaylard; we’ve got a ninth grader who plays, a couple of 10th graders and the rest juniors and seniors.
“We’re playing 10 or 11 players a game. One night it might be your night and the next night it might be somebody else. We’re playing a little faster and scoring more points (62.5 points per game).”
The Rebels’ starting lineup usually features seniors Alison Stubbs and Josie Edwards, who is going to play basketball in college at Faulkner. Stubbs averages 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and Edwards averages 7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Emma Smith and her twin sister, Ally Smith, both juniors who have been on the varsity since the eighth grade, also start along with junior Carley Smith, no relation.
Among the reserve players are senior Kaylee Dressback, who is headed to the University of Houston to play soccer, and sophomore Anna Towry, who plays nearly as many minutes as the starters and averages 7.1 points.
“Kaylee hasn’t played since the eighth grade, but we got her to come out and play,” Smelser said. “She comes off the bench and guards and rebounds. She helps us.”
Emma Smith is the team catalyst, leading the Rebels in scoring (15.2 points per game), rebounding (7. 3 rebounds per game) and steals (2.8 per game). Earlier this season she surpassed 1,000 points for her career.
“Emma has a high motor,” Smelser said. “She never stops playing hard. If she makes a mistake, she just gets to the next play. If she makes a turnover, the next play she makes a difference on the defensive end.
“She leads our team in rebounding. Although she’s only 5-7, she has those intangibles and tracks the ball coming off the rim so well. She has a knack for it.”
Emma Smith downplays her scoring ability.
“I like to say I work hard, and my teammates give me an opportunity to score,” she said. “Coach Smelser gives me the freedom to do what I do best, but it’s not about me. We’re unselfish and play as a team.”
Emma Smith enjoys being teammates with Ally, who averages 7.4 points.
“It means a lot to me to play with her and it’s a lot of fun,” Emma Smith said. “We first started playing together in the second grade. When we’re on the court, we know what the other one is thinking. We can give each other a look and know exactly what to do.”
Aiming for the Peak
Despite their sensational regular season, Smelser is still waiting for the Rebels to peak.
“I don’t feel like we’ve played our best game yet, as far as offense and defense,” Smelser said. “February is when you want to be playing your best games, anyway.”
Emma Smith is eager to return to the postseason.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done so far and we’re looking forward to the postseason,” she said. “We realize we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, work hard and not lose focus and play our game.”