Jun. 23—Former Newton High School standout and Region 6-2A Most Valuable Player Ja'Leah Hickmon was a leader for the Lady Tigers, helping them win an MHSAA Class 2A state championship in 2019 and helping lead them back to the Final Four in 2021.
Carrying over the same leadership mentality, Hickmon said nothing changed for her when she stepped on campus at Jackson State, with whom she signed in March 2021. Hickmon just completed her freshman season at JSU, during which the Lady Tigers finished 23-6 overall and claimed back-to-back SWAC Tournament titles and a spot in the Women's NCAA Tournament.
"During practice, I was one of the few freshmen that wasn't afraid to lead or be vocal," Hickmon said. "(Head) Coach (Tomekia) Reed told me that my aggressiveness of not being afraid to lead made her trust me immediately."
Hickmon played a huge role in the success at Newton, being the primary scorer for the Lady Tigers, but she quickly understood that adjusting to the role Reed had for her would open many doors.
"In high school, I picked up a lot of slack on the court, so coming into college my role was different," she said. "But whatever Coach Reed needed, my goal was always to rebound, go hard and play good defense."
Hickmon said one of her biggest challenges in playing basketball at the college level was moving out of her comfort zone as a post player.
"I was told I would eventually have to add more guard skills to my game," she said. "My other teammates already had those skills locked in, so it made me a little self-conscious."
Looking for guidance, Hickmon would build a trusting relationship with assistant coach Jonathan Williams.
"Coach Williams would always tell me to trust in myself," she said. "If I can't trust in myself, nobody's going to trust me. I've learned that I'm more capable of doing more than what I have limited myself to."
While only being a freshman, Hickmon got her first taste of the NCAA Women's Tournament as the Tigers nearly pulled off an upset but fell 83-77 to No. 3 LSU.
"The experience was amazing," Hickmon said. "I remember I was just a kid watching them play on TV, and then there I was in LSU's stadium getting ready to play them."
Hickmon says the atmosphere was extravagant, like nothing she had ever seen, and she was happy to be there supporting her teammates.
"It felt like I was just prepared for that moment, like that's where I was supposed to be," she said.
Playing under Reed, Hickmon learned that she must be prepared to play and that you can't afford to be afraid of the game.
"She's all about being fair, but at the same time, she wants to win," Hickmon said. "Coach Reed counts on us; you will either get it done or be sitting on the bench."
After recently participating in a mini-skills camp, Hickmon said the team is scheduled to start full workouts later this month, but she's been in the gym every day since returning home.
"I've worked a lot on my guard skills," she said. "I know when I get back to school I will be playing mainly the guard role, and I want to be prepared."