A year ago, Grain Valley High School coach Randy Draper spotted his Blue Springs counterpart Mark Spigarelli at an eighth grade girls basketball game.
They were there to see the future of their respective programs, and now, they are trying to find the superlatives to describe what Grace Slaughter and Jada Williams mean to their programs.
For just the second time in the history of the award, multiple players are sharing The Examiner’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year. And in a first, they are both freshmen.
Lee’s Summit North’s Claire Coggins, Blue Springs South’s Nikki Knapp and Grain Valley’s Laura Reeves were the first co-winners in 2002 of the award that goes to the top basketball player in Eastern Jackson County.
“I tell you what,” Draper said, “back when Spig and I were watching Jada and Grace when they were eighth graders, we both smiled a lot. We knew they were going to be great additions to our programs, but they exceeded my expectations – and they might have exceeded his, too.
“Wow, are they exciting. And what’s even better is that they are both coachable, they’re great students and as good as they are on the court, they are even better individuals. And that’s why I’m so thrilled to see each of them share this award.”
Once the season ended, Draper admitted that, in the back of his mind, he was wondering who might win The Examiner’s top honor.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about it for a little bit, wondering if a freshman could win it. And what do you know – two freshmen share it, and that’s just great.”
Spigarelli echoed those comments.
“Yeah, we did smile a lot that night,” the veteran Blue Springs coach said. “It was funny, I walked in the gym and there was Coach Draper and I think we both knew the future of our programs was going to be bright.
“Two freshmen who work hard, who work to get their teammates involved, who became team leaders who were accepted by their teammates, they are two special young players, and I am so pleased that they each received the recognition they deserve.
“And I saw Jada get better game by game, and I’m sure Coach Draper could say the same thing about Grace. I know that next year Jada will be even better than she was this year because she’s going to work on her game.
“She’s not going to work on her strengths – and she has so many – she’s going to work on the part of her game she’s not satisfied with, and I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Before they joined the Wildcats and Eagles, Williams and Slaughter shared a national stage this past summer.
They starred in the 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championship in Orlando, Florida, where their U.S. Central Region under-14 team went 7-0 and won the global championship by beating Canada 72-35 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort.
“I definitely don’t believe it all happened, it just seems like a dream – a dream that has come true,” said Williams, who scored 11 points and added four assists in the championship win over Canada.
Added Slaughter, who scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds, “I still don’t believe it. We just clicked as a team. We only had a couple of practices, but I felt like I’d played with the girls all summer.”
That is the type of chemistry they brought to their high school teams.
While Slaughter led the underdog Eagles to the Class 4 quarterfinals, Williams played a big role in getting the Wildcats going to the Class 5 state final four, only to see the COVID-19 pandemic end their dream of a state title when the championship series was canceled.
“That’s the only thing that bums me out about my first year, is that we never got proper closure at the end of the season,” Williams said. “I never got to tell my girls goodbye, give them one last hug – and we didn’t get the chance to win a championship. When we found out the final four was canceled we were devastated.”
However, hearing that she and Slaughter are sharing the Player of the Year honor brightened her mood.
“That is so cool,” said Williams, who averaged 17.5 points per game, to go along with 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.0 steals while being named to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Class 5 all-state team. “There is no one I would rather share it with than Grace. We have known each other for a long time, and sharing it with someone you really admire and like makes it even more special.”
Slaughter, who scored a school-record 656 points, averaged 23.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while being named to the MBCA Class 4 all-state team.
“I was so excited to play high school ball,” Slaughter said. “I’ve been dreaming about playing for Coach Draper for as long as I can remember.
“I thought I would be able to play at the high school level, but I never imagined anything like winning the Player of the Year Award and sharing it with Jada.
“She’s a great person, a great teammate and a great player to share this award with. I can’t wait to call her and congratulate her.”
Throughout the season, the 6-foot-1 combo guard saw every gimmick defense a team could throw at her.
“They tried ‘em all,” Draper said, “and luckily for us, they weren’t very successful. She’s just that good. And when she had two or three players defending her, she always found an open teammate. That’s what makes her so special.”
When that comment was relayed to Slaughter, she grinned.
“I’m going to give it 200 percent whether I am in a game or practicing, and I think our coaches and my teammates know that,” she said. “Winning a district championship as a freshman was unbelievable and playing with so many great girls and with our great coaches made it even better.
“And like I said, sharing it with Jada made it even more special. We’re both freshmen, so we’re going to keep working to try and win it again next year. But I know both of us would rather win games, than awards, but it is still special.”