Royals' Stephenson No. 1
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Oct 9, 2013, 08:27
PRINCE GEORGE — It didn’t take long for those around Ariel Stephenson to know she had enough talent to excel in the game of basketball. She possessed a mind for the game advanced for age even while in the fourth grade.
In fact, Prince George varsity coach Billy Gray saw Stephenson attend one of his basketball clinics during her year in the fourth grade. He immediately looked to Stephenson’s father with a face which told the full story.
She could become a star.
“She came to my basketball camp as a fourth-grader and I knew at that moment she was extremely special,” Gray said. “I talked to her father ... about her having tremendous amount of abilities and I think he knew she had those abilities as well.”
Fast forward to her junior of high school, just under a month away from opening tip of a new season, Stephenson finds herself among the elite women basketball players in the country.
How elite is the Royals’ junior guard?
ESPN ranks her as the 14th best player in the class of 2015 and the top player
at her position in the country. Lofty status for a player who is not even close to realizing her full potential and has two years of high school basketball remaining.
“We want her to take over the game more and Ariel is very quick to realize that even though she is a good player, there are things she can get better,” Gray said. “And she continues to work on those areas.”
But to dissect a game which has led Stephenson to be named a five-star recruit, receive a grade of 96 out of 100 by ESPN and play on the varsity team since her freshman season would be nitpicking. Stephenson’s impact on the Royals is easy to see.
Prince George’s weakness has been their lack of height in the front court, but Stephenson’s presence has allowed the Royals to successfully navigate themselves through district play, finishing in second-place each of the last two years.
The two-time All-Central Region selection averaged 18 points, eight boards, 3.7 steals and 3.5 assists per game last season. She even eclipsed the 1,000 point mark in a Feb. 15 playoff game against Meadowbrook, leaving the school record mark of 1,468 points set by Jorden Lykes within sight.
Yet, her biggest impact on the Royals may be the way she is able to push and drive her teammates with her words, work ethic and abilities.
“She pushes her teammates and handles responsibilities really well,” Gray said of his junior. “She’s becoming a good leader for the team and she cares about the other players ... always trying to help them. The other girls like her real well and they realize she’s a talent and look up to her.”
And one can’t blame her teammates for doing just that.
Stephenson has maturity which belies her youth. Gray saw it as he watched her grow as a player and person throughout middle school, going as far as saying she would have helped his team as early as seventh grade.
It’s the maturity she’s shown which also allowed her to put to bed the speculation and never-ending recruitment battles that form around top prospects. This summer, Stephenson verbally committed to play basketball at Wake Forest University.
The Demon Deacons, a resident of the Atlantic Coast Conference, finished last season 13-19 overall and had a 5-13 mark within conference play. It’s a team, much like the Royals, which continues to grow as new and talented players commit to a rising program.
It also helped to be located close to home, an aspect Stephenson has said played a role in her commitment. Yet, for his part, Gray is happy the process is over and she can focus on becoming a better overall player and not have to deal with the distractions.
“I’m happy for the family that she’s committed to a school that she wants to go to because the recruiting pressures were mounting,” he said of the process. “They were not going to do anything but get worse. It’s also important for a player to know what school they want to go to and go ahead and commit ... to help get the pressure off their backs with all the letters and phone calls.”
And much like her teammates, Stephenson is ready for the season to begin.
With the phone no longer ringing, mail from coaches all across the country ceasing, Stephenson can once again focus on playing the game she’s excelled in since fourth grade. As she takes the court, she’ll continue to work on her mid-range shooting all the while pushing herself and her teammates closer to a deep playoff run.