Sports

Short on experience, Long on talent

By COLE COSGROVE

Associate editor

When the Jefferson girls basketball team hosted a junior high clinic during winter break, the Jefferson players split to each side of the gym based on which junior high they attended — Kilo or Totem. The younger players then joined them, based on their school.

One girl was left alone in the center of the court, unsure which side to join.

“That’s when I realized that was the first time that has happened before,” Jefferson coach Mike Grady said.

The player who was standing alone happened to be Jefferson’s 6-foot senior captain Kezia Long, who was homeschooled and had never played competitive basketball until she enrolled at Jefferson as a sophomore.

“I played soccer for five years and I just decided why not play basketball,” Long said. “I decided to go to public school and fell in love with the game. Little did I know all the other aspects that come with it.”

In just her third year playing, Long broke the single season school record for most rebounds in Friday’s game.

This season she is the team’s second-leading scoring, while leading in rebounds and blocked shots, averaging 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots per game.

She tied the school record for most single-game rebounds with 18 against Sehome. She also set a school record with 12 blocked shots in one game.

And while we’re talking about stats it’s worth mentioning that Long is the No. 1 student in her class at Jefferson with a 4.0 grade point average.

“It’s good for young girls to realize that anything is possible,” Grady said. “If you work hard, there’s always a chance to walk into a program and make an impact. And she has.”

With the help and encouragement of her neighbor, 80-year-old superfan Bob Ratcliff, Long walked into a public school for the first time and faced a Jefferson basketball program where all of the girls had been playing together since grade school.

“It was intimidating,” Long said. “But it only took one or two practices to get in there. If I see a challenge, I’m the kind of person to eat that challenge up.”

As a coach, Grady saw the potential of a 6-foot, athletic player.

“She had never played organized basketball before and it showed,” Grady said. “She was athletic, but very lost in the way she played. I knew I could teach her the plays, but I couldn’t teach her to be tall.”

Grady handed Long the play book and told her to go home and study. Long was like a sponge — a tall sponge — trying to absorb as much basketball knowledge as she could.

“It’s an unbelievable challenge for her,” said Kezia’s mom, Deb Long. “The good part is she loves the game. The other part is, she still has so much she’s got to learn. When she started, we were like, ‘Zia, can you even spell basketball?’ ”

Grady said Long’s willingness to learn helped fill the gaps caused by her lack of experience.

“You just don’t show up on the first day of practice as a homeschooler and make a 4A high school basketball team,” Grady said. “Most girls are in basketball camps since kindergarten. We just don’t see those kinds of kids.”

Long played junior varsity as a sophomore at Jefferson. She then broke into the varsity lineup as a junior and was voted most-improved player.

“I didn’t even expect to make varsity last year,” Long said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without the team, because they helped me grow. Jefferson’s program wouldn’t be anything without the team and the coach. Grady has been a great mentor for me.”

Grady cites Long’s work ethic, family support and relentlessness.

“She’ll be a poster child for homeschooled kids,” Grady said. “She’s a breath of fresh air. She works hard. If people see flaws in her game, it’s because of lack of experience. She’s one of our extremely key components to our program right now. No matter how far we go, she’s been instrumental this season.”

This past summer Long was in the weight room three days a week, driven by the desire to repeat last season’s accomplishment of making it to the state tournament.

“All the success we had last year was incredible,” Long said. “We still talk about it and get butterflies and anxious and excited. Waiting in the locker room before a game at state, knowing people are out there, it’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”

Long hopes to get a college scholarship and play basketball. Three four-year colleges, in addition to just about every area community college, have already expressed serious interest.

“She’s a 6-foot girl who can run the court,” Grady said. “She has untapped potential. People know she has holes in her game that surely a college can fix. But two years ago she didn’t even know what a basketball looked like.”

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