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With Necole Sterling on board, Stonewall Jackson has taken off

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:51 AM

The day Necole Sterling walked into the Stonewall Jackson gym, the team's hopes for another playoff run brightened. The day she almost walked out? Well, that's another story.

It was early in the season, and the Raiders were nearing the end of a conditioning session. Sterling, a Heritage transfer who would be the first to acknowledge that she at times has treated coaches' directives as mere suggestions, had been pushed hard enough for one day. She was tired of Coach Nsonji White's demands ringing in her ears.

So Sterling stormed off the court, the tempestuous player following yet another impulse, one that could derail a promising season and, quite possibly, jeopardize her scholarship to Indiana. As she headed for the door, the Raiders, irritated as they were, urged her to stay and said that they needed her.

"They'd been sticking by me, every single incident we've had, problem we had, they stuck by me," Sterling said at practice this week. "If I would have walked out, that would have been selfish, because they did everything they could for me regardless of how I've been sometimes or how they may have liked it or not.

"Discipline without question. Just trusting and believing. That was the main thing with me. I've never really trusted or believed in my coach or my teammates. It takes a lot for me to trust a person. It took a lot more than what most are willing to give. I understand that. I can wear people down."

That recognition of the compromises that others had made on her behalf and how she needed to make more of an effort to reciprocate, might have been the key moment of the season for the No. 15 Raiders, who are in the Virginia AAA semifinals for the first time. They are the only team this season to beat No. 4 West Springfield, and they will face the Spartans (28-1) again at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

The practice incident was one of many flare-ups during a bumpy stretch both for Sterling, whose family moved from Leesburg to Manassas, and her new teammates. White needed Sterling to play point guard, the position vacated by his daughter, second-team All-Met Kyani White, who is now at Virginia Tech.

The 6-foot Sterling, a shooting guard more accustomed to doing what she wanted when she wanted, was struggling to re-program herself.

Sanding what one teammate referred to as Sterling's "rough edges" was the main adjustment the Raiders (19-7) had to make this season, but they also had to fold in sophomore guard Danielle Burns, a transfer from Colorado who joined the team one day in early January, hoping to gradually work her way into the lineup. She started the next night.

So Stonewall really has been three teams: The one breaking in Sterling that lost its first three games; the one breaking in Burns, which immediately fortified the team and evoked more communication among all to acclimate her; and the team that Stonewall has become, one a game shy of playing for a state championship.

It's an odd squad for a team making its fourth state tournament appearance in five years. Stonewall has three Division I recruits - senior forward Joy Caracciolo (Boston College), Sterling (Indiana) and junior guard Ryan Jordan (Hampton). Yet the Raiders have gotten no points from their bench in the past five games.

Early this season, Caracciolo found herself, along with Jordan and senior Sylvia Mphofe, leading a series of players-only meetings that hinged on Sterling and the Raiders accepting each other.

"It took longer than we thought it would," Caracciolo said of Sterling settling in. "She'd progress and sometimes [regress]. The freshmen come in not knowing anything. She had to come in and change what she knew. It was really frustrating, but we all had sympathy. It's hard to change habits, your entire way of thinking.

"She does things without thinking about it and then she'll think about it later. She's apologized a lot," Caracciolo said with a laugh. "There's definitely a change. Earlier in the year, she'd be just like, 'whatever' about it, but now she actually listens and she tries to do it."

"I know what to say," said Sterling, the only Raider not smiling in the team photo in the state tournament basketball program, "but sometimes - well, a lot of times - I don't know how to say it."

Toward the end of a 23-minute interview at courtside, White pops over to make sure that Sterling isn't spewing bulletin-board material. She isn't, at least not for West Springfield. What she's talking about is stuff more likely to inspire her own teammates.

"I just can't say enough about these girls," said Sterling, who has settled into more of a hybrid guard role. "They've really taken me in and taught me the right way to do things - and possibly saved my scholarship. I've become a better-disciplined person, understanding what has to be done and that things can't always be done your way.

"Leadership is not just having other people listen to what you say, it's also listening to what they say. I've been listening more."

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com

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