By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
You can usually tell when a high school girls basketball player has grown up playing hoops against boys. They have a certain toughness to them, a swaggar — a little bit of that chin-in-the-air, “I got next” attitude.
Ariyanna Wilkes, a senior at Holy Spirit, grew up playing basketball against her older brother and other boys on the playgrounds of Egg Harbor Township. She said her brother never took it easy on her, and he made sure to tell the other boys not to, either.
“He really helped me a lot. When I was growing up, he would make me tougher to go against people who were bigger than me,” Wilkes said. “He made me a stronger player. Growing up, we played at a lot of outside courts and he would tell the other boys not to take it easy on me.”
“The athleticism is the key with her, and she brings instant energy off the bench for us,” said Holy Spirit coach Dennis Smith. “Just like Savanna (Holt) brings instant offense, Ariyanna can bring both instant offense by driving to the basket and defense with tipped passes and things of that nature.”
The Spartans have a solid corps, led by senior point guard Ayanna Jones, senior Julia Rifici, juniors Regina Lamcken and Kamryn Englert, and budding star freshman Ciani Redd-Howard. But Wilkes plays a vital role for the Spartans, whether it’s in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. Smith asks her to go full speed when she’s in the lineup, playing aggressive defense while also getting to the rim — and the foul line — when the situation calls for it. The Spartans have plenty of shooters, but struggle sometimes when it comes to driving from the outside and getting to the rim. That’s when Wilkes’ athleticism is an advantage.
“We’re finding that when we need it, we’re having that ability to spread the floor and get to the basket,” he said.
Wilkes said the transition from EHT to Holy Spirit wasn’t always easy. The toughest part was having to sit out the first 30 days of her junior season, as required by NJSIAA rules. But, having to sit the bench in street clothes might have been a good thing. It allowed her to see everything the Spartans practiced playing out in front of her during games.
“It wasn’t easy. Junior year, I had to sit out the first 30 days, and when I came back I had to play JV. I learned a lot though. I was still able to practice, so I was learning the plays and I was watching it during the game. The seniors we had, Nat (Niederhofer), Cass (Gallagher) and Tarryn (Slattery), they really helped me a lot,” Wilkes said. “I was a little frustrated because I don’t like sitting the bench at all, but I think it did help me.”
“She is one of the players who absolutely has stepped up for us. She had some very good players ahead of her and she had to sit 30 days last year after transferring over from Egg Harbor Township. So, she had to sit and earn her time, and she did that. She got better last year as the year progressed,” Smith said. “This year was a little bumpy in the beginning, but, to her credit, she has stayed with it and now is getting time and doing a good job with the things we ask her to do.”
Smith said that off the court, Wilkes doesn’t have all that much to say. She just goes about her business.
“She’ll come in my room with Ayanna while I’m teaching, and they’ll both stand there. And I’ll be like, ‘yes?’ And Ariyanna will just say, ‘I’m with her.’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘what, like a bodyguard?’” Smith said with a laugh. “She’s a great kid. Never disrespectful. Sure, she gets frustrated sometimes, but she’s a teenager. But she’s always looking to get better, asking what she can do to get better (herself) as well as help the team.”
Wilkes admits that when she was a younger player, she played with a reckless abandon. She’s since learned how to control her play more to be a more efficient and effective player.
“I was throwing my body around a lot (when I was a younger player), diving into the bleachers, anything,” she said.
“To watch her at EHT — you saw the raw athleticism — but she was all over the place. She would be jumping into the bleachers trying to save a loose ball. And she was kind of hotheaded on the court,” Smith said. “But, when you watch her on the floor now, she’s a much different kid. That’s just natural growing up, but also she had some players like Cass and some of the other senior leaders last year who took her under their wing and were able to help her grow up.”
With Wilkes’ up-tempo style of play giving the Spartans a boost, Holy Spirit is challenging for the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title, and should be a contender in both the CAL Tournament and Non-Public B South playoffs. Wilkes says she has plenty of confidence in her team.
“I have a lot of faith in this team. I believe in us,” Wilkes said. “It doesn’t matter to me (how many shots I get). If I’m playing, I help in any way I can.”
“We struggled early with some team chemistry issues, but the girls finally accepted her as a senior leader,” Smith said. “It was hard, she came in midway through her career, but she’s endeared herself to her teammates. It’s worked out, and we’ve gotten progressively better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN