Last May, FAMU DRS junior Jazmine Jones stepped off a plane in Colorado and immediately knew things were different.
Jones, a 5-foot-11-inch guard, had been selected to tryout for the USA Women’s Basketball 18-under team. But being in Colorado Springs meant she was now on a national stage, where her normal jumping ability and athleticism meant far less than it did in Tallahassee.
“I thought maybe it would be a cake walk, but then I see these tall girls and know they have to play basketball,” Jones recalled.
“We got to the training center for a meeting and all I saw was six-foot and up. Oh, Lord, it was going to be tough. My first day, training and practicing, it was definitely different. The girls were bigger and stronger than I thought they would be.”
Jones, who averaged 20 points, six rebounds and six assists a game last year on the way to being a first-team All-Big Bend selection for the third time, ultimately did not make the team.
But it lit a fire.
“Everything became about fundamentals,” Jones said.
“All I’ve done since then is think about what I need to do to be better. I’ve worked twice as hard to get invited back next year and make the team. I get in the gym more. I take it more serious. I work on my shot, ball-handling, extending my range.”
Jones’ personal growth is made all the more important by two big changes from last year’s state final team. Longtime FAMU DRS coach Ahmad Aliyy resigned and four-time All-Big Bend Player of the Year Lakaris Salter graduated and went to Mississippi State.
“It’s real different,” said Jones, who has offers from nearly every high Division-I team, including FSU, Baylor and Duke.
“Now I have to be the vocal leader on and off the court. Last year, everyone looked up to her and now everyone this year is looking up to me. They feed off my energy. If I don’t bring it one day in practice then everyone else will be sluggish. But if I keep my intensity up, everyone will follow that pace.”
The three-time state champion Rattlers (2004, ’12-13) are 11-1 to start the year. Jones and senior shooting guard Ja’Nyia McNealy are averaging 16 points a game, while senior forward Raygene Garner is averaging 10.
Jones is filling up other stat categories with eight rebounds and five assists a game. Freshman Lakrista Walker is starting at point guard and reminding Jones of Milan Clayton, who guided FAMU DRS two back-to-back state titles with her outstanding court vision.
From Ambriel Scott and Ashley Carr in the post to Ashanti Lamb and Keveona Rhodes on the perimeter, the roles are clear. The mission is to shake off the bad feelings from last year’s narrow state championship loss that would have made three consecutive state titles. And nothing less than gold-plated hardware will do.
“We will win state this year,” said first-year coach Ericka Cromartie, not backing down when looking at her talented returning players.
Cromartie knows her way around FAMU DRS, having played for the Rattlers from 1996-2001. She played varsity in the fifth grade and earned first-team All-Big Bend honors as a sophomore. She knows the history, history that’s bloomed since she left. And she knows how the Rattlers got there, full-court pressing teams into submission.
“That’s all we know,” Cromartie said. “It’s a strategy and it’s successful. We’ll keep doing it.”
The Rattlers’ schedule hasn’t been drenched in difficult challenges as in years past, in part because of the coaching switch. Cromartie has made due quickly, but if an opponent cancels nothing can be done except to prepare internally.
That’s been a big lesson for the whole team as it prepares to try again for Lakeland.
“You’ve got to remain hungry,” Cromartie said.
“We’re 11-1, but we’ve got a long way to go. Potter’s house would have been a good test. The girls were devastated— I was too— not to play the No. 16 team in the nation. But it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’ve got to work. We’ve got to work on what we need to do. Nothing is given. It’s keeping them hungry, that’s the challenge. But we have not arrived.”