BLUE EYE — Sparta suffering a couple of losses at the Blue Eye Tournament this week didn’t dampen Averi Leyland’s enthusiasm regarding her return to the Lady Trojans.
Leyland is enjoying shooting hoops again for the first time in three years. She scored four points in Sparta’s 42-39 setback at the hands of the host Lady Bulldogs in the tourney’s third-place game Friday.
“I love basketball, I've always loved it and I definitely missed it,” said Leyland, who made her varsity debut as a freshman, before sitting out the last two seasons. “But I kind of needed the break.
"Senior year, I wanted to play with my girls again," she added. "I was hearing non-stop from them, 'I need you to come back' and I knew last year I wanted to play again."
Leyland was the third Sparta player in recent years to opt to sit out a season. Three years ago, Shelby McMurry didn’t play her junior season and two years ago Natalie Wilks also didn’t suit up as a junior.
“I went to some of the games. I went to more last year than the year before,” Leyland said. “I knew I wanted to be out there. I could see things and was thinking, 'Oh, I need to do that next year.’”
Sparta (1-2) held the upper hand on Blue Eye for most of the game and was up 36-34 with two-plus minutes to play. But the Lady Bulldogs closed the game with an 8-3 run.
Turnovers and 4-of-10 free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter were too much for the Lady Trojans to overcome.
“We kind of freaked out. We didn't know how to handle the pressure,” forward Alivia Loveland said. “We had big turnovers in wrong moments and the momentum stopped going our way. It was tough.”
Forward Laney Forgey scored a career-high 12 points to top Sparta, while center Amree Youngmon netted nine and guard Mya Fulton added eight.
Forgey accounted for eight of Sparta’s 11 points in the fourth quarter.
Kaylee Wilson, who transferred from Ozark to Blue Eye at the start of last school year, scored a game-high 15 points. She had nine in the fourth quarter.
Sparta had a shot to force overtime at the buzzer. Loveland gave her off-balanced 3-point attempt a good try, but the shot was too high off the backboard.
“When I looked at it, I thought it might (bank in). I was hoping it would,” Loveland said. “But it was a little too hard.”
Sparta has dropped 16 of its last 18 games against Blue Eye over the last 12 seasons. The Lady Trojans could get a couple more shots at the Lady Bulldogs later this season, with both teams part of the fields at the Sparta Tournament and the Walnut Grove Tournament.
“I for sure want to play them again,” Loveland said.
“We need another shot at them," Leyland said. "Just like (coach Josh Loveland) said, 'This is their gym and their tournament.' We need another run at them.”