When Cayla Sexton came to Ewing High School, she came with a winning attitude. She was a huge addition to the Blue Devils girls’ basketball team that went 22-5 last season and took its first trip to the Mercer County Tournament final since 1999 and a sectional semifinal berth. She’s hoping there are even bigger wins ahead in her final season at Ewing.
“We want to go as far as we can,” said the senior guard. “We know we have a really good team. We want a state championship. We have to concentrate and stay focused the whole season, not just March. We have to start now.”
Ewing raced out to an 11-1 start in the first month of the season, capped by a 70-24 win over Princeton High on Jan. 17. The significance of that dominant win—their largest margin of victory of the season—was that it came with two new players in the lineup for the first time. Transfers Denia Campbell and MyAsia Jackson made strong debuts with 10 and 8 points respectively. Under state rules, transfers are not allowed to play during the first 30 days of the season.
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the players because now we have more people. We are kind of low on players, so having two new players, it helps take pressure off the rest of us and helps us relax because we know we have each other’s backs.”
Jaycee Lowe led Ewing with 16 points, Kiyla Peterson had 12 points and Mya Grimes had 10 points. Sexton had seven points, and Stephanie Gbodgoade, Asianna Merrill and Kiyann Peterson all had two points apiece.
“I actually thought it fit together somewhat seamlessly,” Ewing head coach Mike Reynolds said. “People moved the ball, shared the ball. I thought the energy was good. We looked fresher because we could get some people off and rest a bit. I think that helped defensively. Overall, I was pretty pleased.”
The 11-1 start is nothing new for the Blue Devils. They have made a tradition of good starts to seasons, but they haven’t always finished as strongly. Until last year.
They went 11-4 down the stretch with two of their losses to Notre Dame, and they avenged one of their losses to Allentown when they won the rematch in the MCT semifinals as Sexton scored 17 points. It was her first year with the Blue Devils after transferring from Trenton Catholic Academy, where she won a MCT championship as a sophomore.
This year’s Ewing team is on par with some of her past TCA teams. All the parts are in place to go after some lofty goals.
Sexton is guarding against looking too far ahead or getting too excited about their promising start. She knows there is a critical month of the regular season ahead before the post-season tournaments begin.
“I don’t listen to the hype or pressure,” Sexton said. “Whatever happens, happens. If you start listening to that stuff, that’s when things go wrong.”
The Blue Devils opened the season well thanks to top-end players like Sexton, Peterson, Grimes and Lowe. They led the team through the first part of the season and now Campbell and Jackson jump in the mix.
Reynolds said Campbell is a solid point guard. “She gives us a lot of quickness out front defensively. She distributes well. I think she takes smart shots. She’s really good in the open floor getting baseline to baseline.”
He added that Jackson is a strong all-around player who can shoot from the outside and post up. “Physically, she’s very strong so when she gets in around the basket, it’s hard to knock her off her shot.”
Sexton is another guard along with Peterson who can run the point position or fill one of the other guard spots. Ewing looks to get the ball to the first guard open who can push the ball up the court fast. Sexton has been willing to do any role asked, Reynolds said.
“What makes her really good is she cares about the team winning first,” Reynolds said.
He added that Sexton has had games where she’s had two points and games where she has scored 20 points.
“Her approach doesn’t change,” he said. She’s always defending hard, listening in huddles and making adjustments. If it’s her night to move the ball and someone else gets 10 shots, that’s what she does. She makes the right play really on a consistent basis and competes.”
Sexton’s season-best of 19 points came in Ewing’s only loss, a 56-45 loss to Toms River North on Dec. 28, in a game that she called a learning experience for the team. It’s a game that they could have been more aggressive and communicated better.
“She sort of sensed that we were struggling, which we were,” Reynolds said. “She dug in and tried to put things on her shoulders, which is another thing she’s not afraid to do.”
He said that Sexton doesn’t feel it has to be that way every game to the point where she’s monopolizing the ball, but she’s willing to do it.
“She was good enough that game to keep us in touch.” he said. “It didn’t work out in the end, but that’s that competitive response that she has. That’s what makes her so tough to play against.”
Through the first 30 days of the season, Ewing had to lean on their experienced players and go deeper into its roster without the services of Campbell and Jackson.
The Blue Devils are focusing now on gaining game experience together with their full roster now available. They can play a little differently with their full complement.
“It changed our defensive approach somewhat,” Reynolds said. “We’ll be able to go man-to-man. We have more girls to use. Before we got the two girls back, we were doing more 3-2 defense, zone press. We’ll still do those things, but now we have the freedom to get up in people’s faces and push ourselves because we can get that rest.”
Adding depth can only help Ewing achieve its goals.
Sexton said that everyone on the team has to accept their roles, communicate and realize that since they have two new players things will change, but in a good way. “We have to share the ball and play with each other and not by ourselves.”
Sexton wants to finish her playing career on a high note. Beyond Ewing, she is preparing to walk away from the basketball court that she has spent so much time on during her life.
“After this year, I’ll just focus on school and my career,” she said. “I’m going pre-med. I kinda know what I want to do.”
For now, Sexton is doing everything in her power to keep Ewing on track for a championship. The Blue Devils still have to play a tougher group of opponents that includes Hopewell Valley, Allentown, Notre Dame and underrated Steinert. Ewing already knocked off unbeaten West Windsor-Plainsboro North on Jan. 13.
“We’ve had some challenging games along the way, especially our Christmas tournament,” Reynolds said. “We need that challenge to keep us honest. We are very talented and we can win some games even if we don’t play at our best. There are teams coming up down the road that we can’t do that.”
“You eventually get to the point where you win, you move on, you lose, you go home,” he added. “You don’t want to have one of those losses at that point because you weren’t ready or sharp.”