8 is enough: eStem claims state title with eight players

by Hunter Brooks

In just its second year under the Arkansas Activities Association, the eStem girl’s basketball team won the school’s first state championship, 47-38, over Harding Academy. Maybe even more impressive is they did it with just eight players.

The Mets finished the season with a 29-6 record including a perfect conference (5-3A) mark of 14-0. In its first season under the AAA banner, the team reached the semifinals.

Head coach Johnecia Howard said she focused on cardio and conditioning to prepare a team with so few players.

“Part of the foundation of our team is to be one of the most conditioned in our conference,” she said. “We would run hills. We started with 13 and dropped to eight. The five that dropped left for different reasons. The eight survived because they had a no-quit attitude that carried us through the season.”

eStem, located in Downtown Little Rock, is a non-profit charter school in just its fifth year of operation. The team does not have a gym to play home games in and practices at the East Little Rock Community Center. The Mets split their home games between gyms at the School for the Deaf, Philander Smith or the UALR practice gym.

Howard said the team turned that negative into a positive.

“I think early on it was a struggle (not having a home court), last year especially,” she said. “Although throughout the season it became an advantage; we had a chip on our shoulders. We had something to play for. We would love to have one, but the girls adjusted and it become a positive.”

To make matters worse, senior Becca Mosler went down on the first possession of the state championship game, tearing her ACL and medial meniscus and spraining her MCL. Mosler was the third-leading scorer on the team.

“When I went down, I knew there was no chance of me getting back out there,” Mosler said. “It killed me. I wanted nothing more than to be out there with my team in the biggest game of the season. I was never worried though, not for a second. There was not a doubt in my mind that we would win that game.”

eStem trailed by as many as nine in the first half, down 24-17 at halftime.

“Obviously Becca is a phenomenal player,” Howard said. “At halftime, we went to Plan B, and other players had to step up and get in. Everybody had to get a little of Becca in themselves at halftime. We needed it to win for her, too. Teams respond when that happens, or they fold. Thankfully, we had a team that responded well.”

Senior Olivia McWilliams and sophomore Gia Hayes took over in the second half, combining for 38 of eStem’s 47 points.

“Olivia and Gia took over the game and never looked back,” Mosler said. “I cannot even begin to saw how proud I am of the younger girls stepping up at a crucial time. Coach always stressed the importance of being ready when it’s your time. Well, their time came, and they were ready.

“(Freshman) Carly Clement hit big shots, (freshman) Tia Mooney grabbed some huge rebounds and (sophomore) Leah Allen  played amazing defense. They all did their part, and it was all of the little things that contributed to this win.”

The team consisted of three seniors, one junior, two sophomores and two freshmen.

“Our team is extremely close; in fact we really are a family,” Mosler said. “I consider each of my teammates as not only a best friend, but a sister. Coach Howard really emphasized the importance of knowing our roles. Each of us had a role, and when we all execute, we win. We believed in the system, and that belief and confidence that we had in ourselves and each other helped lead us to victory.”

Next year, eStem will move up athletic classifications to 4A.