Americus-Sumter girls’ basketball team sharpens skills and learns life lessons at FCA camp

Published 5:00 am Friday, June 1, 2018

ALBANY – It’s Summer, a time when many kids and teenagers are just getting out of school and are ready to enjoy all that Summer has to offer: the beach, the pool, no homework, things of that nature. However, for high school athletes, it is by no means a time to relax. It is a time to sharpen their skills in their various sports in preparation for their upcoming seasons.

During the Summer, many high school basketball teams go to various team camps held at colleges to train for the upcoming season and to bond together. They play against other schools in a competitive environment much like that of the regular season. For the Lady Panthers of Americus-Sumter, this is no exception. They are coming off a 24-8 season and an appearance in the Class AAAA state semifinals.

Destiny Sims running the point for ASH against Clinch County.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

This is the time for bonding, especially for newcomers such as Jelissa Reese, a transfer from Crisp County. Reese will be a junior in the Fall for the Lady Panthers and will be expected to provide leadership to fill the void left by All-State performer Jykiera Long and her sister, Tykiera Long, who have both graduated. In-coming freshmen Tiffany Goodman and Trinity Jackson have also joined the team during the Summer season. They are young, but are expected to provide solid depth for the Lady Panthers. Destiny Sims, a rising sophomore, is also in camp and should provide depth for Americus-Sumter. Returning starters Nyja Carson, DeAsia Ford and Brianna Pope are also participating in the Summer camp season. They will be expected to provide leadership for the Lady Panthers during the upcoming 2018-19 season.

The one-day camp the Lady Panthers participated in on Thursday, May 31, was run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and held at Albany State University. Other teams participating in the camp were Westover, Baker County, Brooks County, Dougherty and Clinch County among others. FCA basketball team camps are just as competitive and fun as other basketball camps. There’s one big difference, however. While basketball is important, the emphasis is on the athletes knowing what their purpose in life is, and especially, having a personal relationship with the one who made them. Bill Cox is the Albany-Area Director for FCA. “We have this camp every Summer. It kicks off our FCA camps,” Cox said. “We do camps all over the country.” Cox went on to say that he, along with Albany State Women’s Basketball coach Robert Skinner, have been doing this camp for 10 years. “It’s just a great time that we get these athletes and coaches together, and not just play basketball, but talk about the Lord Jesus Christ and how he can become their Lord and Savior,” Cox said.

Americus-Sumter’s Natasha Jackson shoots a jumper against Dougherty.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

As far as the games were concerned, Americus-Sumter dominated their competition. In their first game against Dougherty, which took place at 9:30 a.m., they defeated the Trojans 44-20.

“It was the first game of the season. The girls were excited,” ASH head coach Sherry Harris said. “We just have to get in the gym and keep getting better. We’re trying to figure out what we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to be doing at this point. Hopefully, we’ll be better later on in June than what we are right now.”

It was an exciting time for rising junior Brianna Pope. She was enjoying being with her teammates at the FCA camp. “I feel like we’re playing pretty good,” Pope said. “I feel excited. I’m ready for our next opponent, and I feel like we’re going to face some good competition while we’re here.”

Later that afternoon, the Lady Panthers played Clinch County and defeated them 38-24. After all the teams had lunch, they were all assembled back in the ASU gymnasium to hear a message from Anthony Laster, a former NFL offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins. Laster is an Albany native who played at Dougherty High School. He played his college football at Tennessee State and was drafted in the 12th round of the 1982 NFL Draft by the Redskins. He was a member of the Redskins team that won Super Bowl XVII by the score of 27-17 over the Miami Dolphins on January 30, 1983. He would later finish out his NFL career with the Detroit Lions, and was inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

Nyja Carson with the ball for ASH.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

However, the success that Laster had as a professional football player was not on his mind on Thursday. Now an ordained minister, Laster had a very important message to share with all of the athletes and coaches assembled inside the ASU gym. His message was about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Laster began his remarks by saying that it was a pleasure for him to be here. “I came here just to share with you all briefly for a moment, and this is very serious business to me,” Laster told the players and coaches assembled. “I didn’t come here to entertain you or impress you in any kind of way, but I want to speak to your heart right now, speak to your spirit and speak to your soul, that inner person that’s inside of you.” Laster went on to say that he wanted their attention for a few minutes and that he wouldn’t keep them long. “I know everybody is excited about the events of today, and they should be,” Laster said. “You all are in a prime position right now in your lives. I’ve been in this position before, so I understand the enthusiasm and the excitement about what you are doing and I applaud you for that. I’m praying that you all have success in your careers.” Laster went on to tell the athletes that however long they get to play the game of basketball, they need to know that it is a privilege that God chose to bless them with the talent to play. “I meet a number of young people all over the country who would love to have some of the athletic gifts that each one of you all are sitting in here with. Please don’t take it for granted,” Laster said. “This time you have right now, please don’t take it for granted. It can be gone in a heartbeat.” Laster went on to exhort the players to take their education seriously because that will last them longer once their bodies aren’t able to keep up with the rigors of basketball. He told them that education will keep them going. Laster emphasized to the players that they need to empower their minds. “Let me get right down to the heart of the business because, like I said, this is serious business with me. I’m also a preacher, and I’ve been doing it longer than you all have been alive for the last 28, going on 29 years now,” Laster said. “I’ve worked with a lot of young people, primarily from the ages of three all the way up to 31. My message has not changed. It has grown. It has expanded because the God I serve is a living God.”

Former Washington Redskins offensive lineman and current minister Anthony Laster presents the Gospel of Christ to the athletes at the FCA camp in Albany.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Laster continued his message by telling the group assembled that God is a faithful, all-encompassing God. The theme of the camp was “Strong”. Several FCA staff members at the camp wore yellow shirts with the word “strong” written in blue letters across the front. “If you’re really interested in being a strong person, there are some key things that you have to do in order to maintain that strength throughout your lifetime,” Laster said. “Now I may say a couple of things that go against how you’re thinking right now, but stay with me because I’m trying to really challenge your intellect, challenge your heart and speak directly to your spirit.” Laster went on to tell the young athletes that they are not here by accident, and that God is getting ready to say something to each and every one of them. Laster told them that God is going to take the words that he speaks to them and use those words to send a special message to each one of them, and that they will have to respond to that message. “He (God) is going to hold you accountable to how you respond,” Laster told the players. “That’s the seriousness of this moment right now,” he continued. Laster went on to tell the group that his first love was basketball and that some people were surprised that he ended up playing football because basketball was what he excelled in. “Things just kind of transpired that way,” Laster said. “You have players and you have those who play the game,” Laster told the group. “There’s a difference, and that is what the Spirit has impressed upon me right now to speak that to you all. You have to start deciding. Are you just going to play, or are you going to be a player? There’s a difference. It’s the same thing when you’re dealing with God.”

ASH rising freshman Tiffany Goodman with the basketball.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Laster told the group that if they’ve heard people say that religion doesn’t work and that God is not real to make sure they know who they’re listening to. “You may be listening to someone who “played” with Jesus versus someone who is actually a “player” for Jesus. There’s a difference,” Laster said. He went on to tell the group that when they are all about “play”, they’re just acting and putting on a front. “You’re fooling everybody. You’re not real. You’re playing it,” Laster said. “When you are a “player”, you truly represent something much bigger than you, and everybody who watches your game, they’ll know if you are playing, or if you are a player.” Laster went on to explain to the athletes that as they’re competing, they come to a point to where their bodies can only take so much. Therefore, they may miss shots they should make. In that case, the problem, Laster told them, is that they are depending on their own strength. “There’s a limit to your strength,” Laster said. “God has no limits with His strength. Please hear me. Each one of you sitting here right now, you have a choice you’ve got to make. Are you going to choose to just play and fake, or are you going to dedicate yourself and actually become a player?” Laster went on to explain to the group that if they’re really going to represent God, then they have to be a player to get His strength. He went on to explain to the group that if they think this “God” thing doesn’t work, it’s because they are “playing” with God and not taking Him seriously. “He (God) doesn’t have time to play with you,” Laster said. “If you want to become a player for Jesus, you’ve got to get real with Jesus. Too many of us get caught up in fooling ourselves first of all, because we think we’re all this and then we’re trying to sell everybody else that we’re all this. I’ve got news for you. Jesus is not fooled,” Laster continued.

Americus-Sumter and Jordan form a circle and have prayer after their game.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Laster went on to tell the athletes that Jesus knows exactly who they are, why He created them and why He has them on earth at this particular time period. “It’s not by accident. I don’t care if someone told you that you were an accidental birth,” Laster said. That’s an accidental lie,” Laster said. “You are here intentionally because God has something for each one of you all to do, so you have a choice to make. Are you going to play with Him, or are you going to get real and let Him train you how to be a player?”

Laster went on to say that God only gives His strength to players (those who know Jesus as their savior), and that all of those who just “play” will never get it. He told the group that if they just act like they’re Christians when they’re really not (i.e. “play”), they will be the ones going around telling everyone that Christianity doesn’t work, when in fact, it’s because they don’t have God’s strength and they are relying on their own. Laster explained to the group that all people, as far as their own strength is concerned, have limitations. He challenged the group not to live their entire lives in the weakness of their limitations. Laster said that he hoped that somebody in the room was sick and tired of leaning on their own strength and playing games with God. “If you’re not, you’re going to keep conning yourself and trying to con everybody else,” Laster said. “I hope you have enough time in that con game to get to the point where you’re sick and tired, tired and sick of yourself, of your weakness.” Laster challenged the group of athletes that if any of them are playing a con game with Jesus to ask forgiveness. He told the group that if they if they will surrender their lives to Christ, they will be “playing strong” for the rest of their lives. “You have to get to the bottom of your weakness. You have to let Jesus reveal that to you,” Laster told the group. “God loved you so much that He came down from His thrown, took on the body of a man, that’s who we call Jesus. What we can’t do for ourselves, He showed us how.” Laster went on to challenge the group to be real with themselves and stop conning themselves. “Get to the end of your weakness. See the strength that God has offered for you,” Laster told the athletes. “If you’ll allow Him to come in and fill your heart, fill your soul, fill your being, I promise you, you’ll begin to see things and do things in a way that you’ve never been able to do before.” Laster went on to tell the group that if they have Jesus living on the inside of them, they will have the power to go the distance.

In summary, Laster’s message to the group was the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of Rev. Laster’s message, an invitation was given to anyone who wanted to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior. They were led in what is known as the “Sinner’s Prayer”. They were told that if they prayed that prayer and meant it, they were to come forward and meet with a member of the FCA staff for further counseling. A total of at least three players from some of the other teams came forward.

After the message was over, the games resumed. Americus-Sumter continued their domination at the camp as they defeated Brooks County 52-18. Their final game was against Jordan, out of Columbus. The Lady Panthers soundly defeated them as well.

Bill Cox is the Albany Area Director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
Photo by Ken Gustafson

As a whole, Coach Harris thought her players played well, but she felt there were still some things they needed to get better at as a team. As far as the message from Anthony Laster was concerned, she wasn’t sure how receptive her players would be. “I thought he (Laster) had a tremendous speech,” Harris said. “I don’t know how much the kids actually enjoyed or listened to or took from it. A lot of times, you have to break down barriers with these teenagers and get into their heads. Hopefully, they received the message that he talked about…being a player and just not playing the game. Hopefully we took something from that.” Harris went on to say that her team will travel to Mercer University on Friday, June 1, for another team camp. The camp will be on Friday and Saturday, June 1-2. She said that her team will play 8-10 games in two days at Mercer. “Our younger girls have to get better, especially the guards,” Harris said. “We’re a man-first defensive team. Of course, I know it’s our first day, but we’ve just got to grow and learn. We don’t have a senior on the team, so these freshman and sophomores are going to have to play this year, but we’ll be ok. Hopefully, we’ll grow from this weekend.”

In addition to their region games during the 2018-19 season, the Lady Panthers will be travelling to Phoenix, Arizona in December for a tournament sponsored by Nike. They will face stiff competition at that tournament from teams from around the country. These team camps the Lady Panthers are going to are to prepare them for that tournament, as well as the rest of the 2018-19 season and the post season.