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Different backgrounds, but bonded in basketball

4:42 PM  Mar 16th, 2018
by Thomas M. Columbus; photos by Briana Snyder ’09

The shipyard, auto plant and steel mill are gone. But Lorain remains Ohio’s 10th-largest city.

In Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, college basketball is king — and queen.

Coolville, Ohio, does not have a stop sign.

The hometowns of Alex Harris, JaVonna Layfield and Jenna Burdette are very different. But, according to head coach Shauna Green, the three seniors on the Flyers women’s basketball team have one thing in common: “You know what you are going to get out of them every single night.”

And what that is has been very, very good.

Though the backgrounds of the three have many differences, the common factor of basketball has drawn them together.
Harris has always loved basketball.

“Even before kindergarten, a basketball hoop was her favorite toy,” her mother, Sandra Wright, said.

Harris’ first day of kindergarten was the first day of high school for her sister, Shayla Wright. The two were very close, partially because their mother worked two jobs. Kindergarten for Harris marked not only the beginning of school but the beginning of intensely following her sister’s basketball career.

Harris rode the team bus to games. As her sister recalled, Harris “sat on the end of the bench. Our coach called her our ‘little mascot.’” Later playing for the same high school, Harris — who, unlike her sister, grew to be 6-foot-3 — would pull in more than 1,000 rebounds.

Seniors Alex Harris, Jenna Burdette and JaVonna Layfield (above, from left), bring strong family ties into their lives as Flyer teammates.

“She’s so intense on the court,” Linda Bradshaw, her partner and longtime friend, said, “but not off. She’s the nicest person I know.”

That opinion is apparently shared by her niece. “Alex is her favorite person in the world,” Shayla Wright said. “When Alex is around, no one else exists.”

Harris is shy, her sister said. And quiet, according to her mother, who said that Penn State, where Harris went to school for two years, “was too big, considering where she’s from. She doesn’t show much emotion, but she did get homesick.”

Transferring to Dayton brought her closer to home and, her sister said, “brought out her full potential.”

At Dayton she would join the outgoing Layfield and the taciturn Burdette, two players whose freshman homesickness was the subject of a Dayton Daily News article in 2015 by Tom Archdeacon ’72. He described the first time that the roommates Burdette and Layfield caught each other crying. They hugged each other.

Layfield was born in Louisville, Kentucky, with basketball in her blood. Athletes run on both sides of her family; one uncle played for Louisville.

High-spirited and energetic, Layfield was always doing some activity. Her mother, Shanneca O’Bannon, said, “We told her, ‘You have to do something, whether it’s sport or debate. You don’t come home and sit on the couch.’”

“We were trying to tire her out,” her grandmother, Gail O’Bannon, said.
Like Harris, Layfield “was a big kid,” her mother said. “Through grade school and middle school she played with her back to the basket.” Then she stopped growing, prompting her AAU coach to work with her on playing facing the basket.

She learned that well, her senior year being named by the Louisville Courier-Journal First Team All-State. But having lived her whole life in Louisville, “she wasn’t sure about leaving,” her mother said. She considered staying in town and attending Bellarmine University, an NCAA Division II school.

Freshman year at Dayton was a struggle for her, her mother said, adding, “I struggled, too, but I didn’t let her see it. When she became fine, I did, too.

“But someone here in Louisville still has to hear her voice every day.”

Often that someone is her grandmother who, when they talk, makes sure Layfield is going to church.

“My mom,” Layfield’s mother said, “would live in the dorm with JaVonna if she could.”

And grandmother did make a lot of trips to Dayton that freshman year.

As did members of the Burdette family.

Coolville may be a lot different from Louisville, but one thing they do have in common — four years ago each had a future Flyer star who was not eager to leave her hometown.

Coolville, according to Jonathan Burdette, Jenna’s older brother, “is in the middle of nowhere.” More precisely it is in southeast Ohio, 30 miles from Ohio University in Athens, where Jonathan attends school.

And it is, as Jill Burdette, Jenna’s mother, said, “half an hour from any store.”

Growing up, Jenna and Jonathan would show cattle from their grandfather’s farm. “Jenna would always take animals to the county fair,” Jonathan said.

And the two would play basketball.

For AAU ball, Jenna traveled 80 miles to Huntington, West Virginia, to play for the West Virginia Thunder; while she was playing for the team, it won its first national championship.

At Reedsville Eastern High School (enrollment about 200), Jenna’s coach was her dad, John. Jenna was four times first-team All-Ohio. In her senior year, she was Division IV Player of the Year, and Reedsville won the state championship.

When the time for college came, her mother said, Jenna made lists of what she wanted and did not want. She was looking for a relatively small Division I school. Dayton was within a three-hour drive; she liked the coaches; and the team needed a point guard.

She did for a while think, her mother said, that she’d be the only member of her class on the team. Then she had a roommate and teammate named Layfield — and two years later another teammate named Harris.

Their junior year, Harris’ first on the court, saw the Flyers, for the first time in program history, win both the A-10 regular season and championship titles. This year, as seniors, they went on a 16-game winning streak to again grab the A-10 regular season title, only to lose in the tournament semifinals to George Washington, 58-53. The seniors then turned their eyes toward a possible at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, in hopes of another day to play, together.

Editor’s note: The Flyers received an at-large bid to play in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The team lost in the first round to Marquette, 65-84.

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