By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- As a point guard, it was only a matter of time before Central junior Ashley Jernigan became an undisputed leader for the Falcons.
With the loss of Ashley Ebersole, Kelsey Bowman and Lauren Heishman to graduation, leaving the Falcons with only two seniors this season, the leadership duties essentially fell on Jernigan's shoulders.
"We talk about it almost every day," Central coach Stephanie Mathews said of Jernigan. "Her leadership, and the sheer fact that she's a point guard makes her a leader on the team.
"You're the leader whether you want to be or not, so you kind of have to make sure that you're playing hard all the time, and you have to set the tone for what happens."
Mathews said that as the Falcons geared up for the 2009-10 season, Jernigan acknowledged that the role of team leader was hers to step into. But how to step into that role -- how to actually guide and shepherd a young and inexperienced Falcons team -- that would be a far more difficult task than simply calling oneself a leader.
Though she started as a sophomore, Jernigan admits she was still getting used to the flow of varsity basketball last season. She was timid. She averaged 1.3 points per game. And she certainly didn't seem to be oozing with leadership qualities.
But the qualities were there, lurking. Jernigan had the ability to lead, the ability to command respect, the ability to score.
"This year I decided that I wanted to be a leader on the team and help everyone out and run things because I'm a point guard," Jernigan said. "I just decided that it was time to attack the basket and actually score because I'm a good shooter. I just wasn't using it."
A quick back-and-forth with Ebersole this past summer enlightened Jernigan as to the best method of stepping to the Falcons' forefront.
Ebersole's words of advice: Set an example; command without yelling; let the younger ones know you're there to help, not to belittle.
In the summer, Jernigan implored the Falcons to work hard. To get stronger in the gym, and more able on the hardwood. She had her teammates playing ball during open gyms and promoted pick-up games whenever possible.
"She kind of shouldered the leadership role this summer and really encouraged people to get to open gym and weight lifting," Mathews said. "She really was one of the hardest-working kids over the summer and in the offseason."
Reborn as a leader, Jernigan's play on the court followed suit.
Her points per game exploded to an average as high as 10, and she's netted as many as 22 points in a single game. Jernigan attacks the basket with such intensity that she's all but guaranteed to draw a foul. And as she's sinking 70 percent from the foul line, nearly half her season points have been tallied at the free-throw line.
But being a leader has its price.
After surging to a 4-2 record to start the season, a terrible fit of turnovers has contributed to the Falcons losing five of their last six games.
And with the eyes of her peers always on her, Jernigan can't be seen with her head down, even during those frustratingly sluggish games, when her head must feel so heavy.
It's not as if Jernigan has to lead the Falcons on her own, though. They are a team, after all, and so she has as much help as she needs.
Senior Brea Hinegardner is there, always looking over Jernigan's shoulder, making sure her head is always kept high. Making sure she keeps her composure.
"She does the same for me," Hinegardner said. "I think just her leadership quality overall is what brings us up every game."
When freshman Allison Bright gets upset that she can't contribute on the floor as much as she'd like, Jernigan reminds her that being a freshman on varsity is a rare accomplishment. When someone can't quite get a drill right in practice, Jernigan doesn't scold her, but rather imparts friendly advice.
And it seems to be rubbing off on Central's younger players. Jernigan cited sophomore Theresa Barela as the future leader of the Falcons, and Heather Clem as a freshman who's recently shown a knack for racking up points.
Indeed, Jernigan, her head held high despite Central's recent whirlpool of losses, sees a bright, bountiful future for Central basketball.
"We think that our team can stick with any team in this district if we come out playing like we know we can play," she said. "And I actually see us winning a lot of games this season and next year."