After canceling girls basketball last winter because of low participation numbers exacerbated by COVID-19 concerns, Smithfield High will return to the court next month. Amazingly, the Packers will do so with legitimate Class 4 state championship ambitions.
That’s because one of the best seniors in the country, Kyla Abraham, has transferred to the school along with one of the best seniors in the state, Jayla Hearp. Both are committed to play in Division I.
Abraham, a 6-foot-5 post player ranked No. 61 nationally among seniors by espnW, committed last week to Baylor, the 2012 and ‘19 national champion. She played last year for Choctawhatchee High in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Hearp, a 5-10 point guard who led Hampton to the 2020 Class 4 state title, has committed to East Carolina. She was the Daily Press Player of the Year for Hampton as a freshman, when she averaged 20 points. She averaged 16 for the Crabbers as a sophomore before missing her junior season because Hampton City Schools opted out of winter sports due to COVID.
If you are wondering if Smithfield has suddenly become a transfer destination for big-time players or is the beneficiary of good fortune, the latter appears to be the case. The Packers didn’t formally hire new coach Derrick Gatling, a Phoebus boys assistant coach, until this month.
Abraham’s stepfather is in the Air Force, and his move to Langley Air Force Base means she will be attending her third school since eighth grade. Hearp’s father is a Smithfield resident, and she says she wants to spend her senior year with him before heading to Greenville, North Carolina, for college.
Gatling, an Air Force veteran, said he took the Smithfield job because he was ready to spread his wings as a head coach after serving as a girls assistant at Kecoughtan and Hampton before his time at Phoebus.
Familiar with Hearp from his time at Hampton and from working with her as a personal trainer, he said her chemistry with Abraham is developing quickly. The girls agree.
“Jayla has a great work ethic and is one of those people who doesn’t want anyone to outwork her,” said Abraham, who says she averaged about 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks for Choctawhatchee, which went 19-3 last season. “That pushes me because I don’t like anyone outworking me.
“It’s friendly competition. She’s really smart and her passes are amazing.”
Hearp said, “I think we already have a good chemistry and it’s only going to get stronger. I’m excited to play with a 6-5 post player who can run the floor, has strong moves down low, competes on defense and is a great shot blocker.”
His two stars will be able to focus on Smithfield basketball with their college decisions out of the way.
“I lived in Texas from fourth to eighth grade and I always wanted to go to Baylor,” Abraham said. “They were a popular team, and when they started recruiting me, I said, ‘Yes, this is where I want to be.’ ”
Hearp said, “I picked East Carolina because of the family atmosphere, the pride they take in defense and their ability to get up and down the floor in transition. Those are strong suits in my game.”
So, too, is leadership, a role she embraced early in her career at Hampton. That should benefit the Packers, who have never reached the state tournament.
“I think my experience with Hampton’s state championship team should help, because I know the kind of hard work it takes,” she said. “I’m willing to run through a big wall for Coach Gatling.”
Abraham said that’s what the new coach might require, but she likes his intense conditioning drills. They will be worth it if Smithfield’s girls can place a state championship trophy next to the one the boys basketball team won last winter.
“That’s the first thing I heard about when I came to Smithfield, is how great the boys team is and that they won a state championship,” Abraham said. “I said, ‘Be prepared for your girls to (win a state title) too.’”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org