By Bob Nuse
In his five years as the head basketball coach at Stuart Country Day School, Justin Leith has made a concerted effort to beef up the Tartans’ schedule.
This year his effort has resulted in as tough a schedule as the team has ever faced.
“I think we have the toughest schedule in the state,” said Leith, who doubles as the school’s athletic director. “As a prep school we have more autonomy as far as who we can schedule. A team like Notre Dame, who we play on Saturday, they have to play all those CVC games. This year we’re going down to Florida to play Miami Country Day School and Oxbridge (Academy). Miami Country Day was the No. 1 team in the country two years ago and I’m sure they’ll be ranked in the country this year. Oxbridge is a team that is ranked in the state of Florida.
“We just lost to St. Anna’s Bayfield (of Virginia) and they’re No. 2 in the state in Group 1 and No. 25 overall. We have Christ the King who I saw already is No. 2 in the nation. If you just go through our schedule it is so tough and then of course we have Pennington and the other tough local teams. So we’re not afraid to play anybody.”
The girls opened the season with a 5-2 start, the latest victory coming Tuesday when they topped Montgomery, 56-52. Laila Fair collected 14 points and 16 rebounds in the victory, while Bey-Shana Clark has 13 points and Aleah James contributed to Stuart’s victory with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“Montgomery went very deep into their states last year,” Leith said of the Central Jersey, Group 4 state finalist. “They have Bria Johnson and (Carolyn) Prevost, so they are a good team for sure. We did a lot of film on them and really made sure what we were doing because we knew they were going to be tough.”
The Tartans returned a solid nucleus to build around with Clark, Nia Melvin, Jasmine Hansford and James. And their fortunes look even brighter thanks to some key additions. Transfers Fair and Gabby Velazquez-Gonzalez, as well as freshmen Caroline Johnson and Lauren Klein, add to the team’s deep roster.
“We have two great freshmen in Caroline Johnson and Lauren Klein who really get it and each game are getting more and playing time and are able to help us out,” Leith said. Gabby transferred from Trenton High School and she was their starting point guard last year. She’s able to help us and is a great addition. Laila Fair has been a monster early on. She’s averaging probably 16 rebounds a game. Against Monty she had 14 and 16.
“We were down at Mercersburg for the Tip-Off Showcase and she had a game with 26 rebounds and 10 blocked shots. She is very difficult to deal with. She’s 6-3 or 6-4. She’s young, so she’s up and down. She has come in and been able to fill the void of Jalynn and then some because of her size.”
Leith knows every game his team will face a test. The Tartans will be the host to the Stuart Invitational Tournament next week with a loaded field.
The fifth annual Stuart Invitational Tournament will get underway Wednesday with four games. The Tartans will face Pingry in the opening round at 4 p.m. The beefed up field of teams also includes Winslow, West Windsor-Plainsboro North, Bishop Ahr, Randolph, Trenton Catholic and Trinity Hall.
The semifinals and consolation games will be played Thursday beginning at 4 p.m., with the finals slated for Dec. 29 at 12:30 p.m.
“We’ve added TCA this year as well as Bishop Ahr, Winslow and Pingry,” Leith said. “They were all top teams in the state last year. So we have that going on and then we head down to Florida to play down there. So we’ll push straight through. It’s part of the experience. The girls love it and it is a good time to bond and play some good basketball.”
Leith has taken great pride in building the Stuart Invitational and knows this year’s tournament will feature some of the best teams to participate in the event.
“I love it” he said. “It’s a great time. We’ve got two games at a time going on and it is a great environment for all the girls in the tournament. It’s exciting and fun. As the days go on the winners are playing the winners and the games get more competitive each day.”
In addition to their tournament and the trip to Florida, Stuart will play the likes of St. Rose (Belmar), Randolph, Christ the King, Lawrenceville, Peddie before the state Prep B and Mercer County tournaments later this season.
“We always want to know where we stand,” Leith said. “We’re not afraid to lose a game. That’s the only way to get better is to play the best competition that’s out there.”
And since he’s the one who put it together, Leith can’t blame the athletic director for saddling him with too tough a schedule.