John F. Kennedy-Richmond and girls basketball have not been talked about in the same sentence since the early 2000's when 6-foot-6 Deidre Chapman roamed the paint.
Enter Rae Jackson, former girls hoops coach at Fremont High in Oakland. Well-known in the basketball community, Jackson and his soaring Eagles have once again put roundball on the map at the South Richmond campus as they take their 24-5 mark into Friday's Div. III second round game vs. league foe Hercules, a team they have beaten twice so far this season.
"This is my third season and it hasn't been easy by any stretch of the imagination, "says Jackson.
13-34 the last two seasons, consistently faced with issues from ineligible players to simply playing each game with just eight players, and even winning a game with just three players in the waning moments, Jackson's squad has built character, and, as he tells his players, "adversity builds character"
A "humble" team in coach Jackson's words, the character in JFK starts with an outstanding backcourt featuring 5-foot-6 sophomores Destanee Alexande and Lexius Meriwhether, who combine for almost 20 points, 10 boards, and five steals per game, and leading scorer Raven Caldwell, a do-it-all 5-foot-8 senior maintaining an impressive line of 16 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 3.5 steals a game. Caldwell, with a resume that also includes a 1500 SAT score (and she is just now starting to hear from colleges as Sacramento State and San Francisco State have inquired about her availability) led the way in the Eagles' opening round win over Analy with 22 points.
Susan Valifone, a 5-foot-2 senior guard, contributes eights points per game and adds more depth and senior leadership to the team.
The front court is anchored by leading scorer and TCAL Stone division MVP Julian Robinson, a 6-foot-1 junior averaging 17 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocked shots a game. Robinson, who snatched down 19 boards in the Analy win, gets help upfront from Kaylonii Bardell, a 5-foot-9 junior who adds nine points and eight caroms per game.
"For these girls, there is no pressure and they are not concerned with the magnitude of the game. But they know if they lose the season is over and they just love the game so they play hard," explained Jackson, who is also the head football coach at the school.
The diligent efforts of a coach and his team have also allowed the administration to buy-in too and, as Jackson puts it, "they understand that this is a situation where academics and athletics do in fact go hand-in-hand."