By Gene Stanley/Sports Correspondent
Until 1976, the state of Alabama had no girls high school basketball teams. None.
That same year, Jacksonville State University started its women’s basketball program.
Not having any in-state players to recruit, Gamecock coaches went to neighboring states to find athletes for their inaugural season.
Kathleen Jester, nee Kemp, a native of Cave Spring, Ga., thus has the distinction of being JSU’s first women’s basketball athletic scholarship winner.
“They had no choice but to recruit in Georgia and other states,” Jester said. “At that time, Georgia had every level of team, from the pee-wees to varsity, while Alabama was just getting started.
“We had the advantage of starting young and learning the fundamentals at a time when high school age girls in Alabama had never played, unless it was in a backyard or something.”
According to Bill Plott’s book, “State Champs,” Alabama had state tournaments in the 1920s but for whatever reason, the sport was dropped until the mid-1970s.
In 1976, there was a four-team state tournament but none was held in ‘77. Since 1978, however, it has become an annual event.
At Cave Spring, Jester’s coach was Graham Woodell, the second winningest coach in state history.
At JSU, Kemp played for Ron Akers, who led the Gamecocks from 1976-80, accumulating a 47-27 record.
After gaining her Bachelor’s Degree, Jester started coaching the girls at Southside High, becoming the Lady Panthers’ second coach.
“It was so evident that there had been no basketball,” she said. “We were playing nothing but eighth-graders and having to teach them.”
Jester said she got the job in part because Gadsden State coach Larry Lewiski gave her a recommendation and the fact that Southside needed a physical education teacher as well as a coach. So she coached the Panthers while working on her Master’s Degree and beyond. She wound up staying at Southside for eight years.
She gave up the coaching gig because by that time, she was a mother.
“It’s tough to be a good coach and a good mother at the same time,” she said. “So I made the decision and stuck with it.”
From that point until her retirement, Jester taught adapted PE at John Jones Elementary. She explained that adaptive PE is physical education for children with disabilities.
Now, her children are grown and Jester is the first-year coach at Westbrook Christian.
“It’s like deja vu,” she said with a laugh. “I got my job at Southside just before the season, because the other coach had to go out on maternity leave. I started at Westbrook this year, a week before the season, for basically the same reason.”
So what has changed about the game from the 1980s till now?
For one, the 3-point shot was instituted in 1987.
“At Southside, I couldn’t coach girls to shoot long-range because it still only counted two points,” Jester said.
While she was at Southside, the Alabama High School Athletic Association also began using the “coaches box,” a drawn rectangle in which the coach can stand, squat or walk.
“Before that, we weren’t allowed to stand up,” Jester said. “My manager’s job was to hold onto my shirt tails and pull me back into the chair if I stood. Getting the coaches box was wonderful, because I could move around some.”
There was another change and she didn’t find out about it until during a game when the referee confused her.
“I called timeout and started toward my team when the referee started asking me what kind,” Jester said. “He had to explain it to me that there are now 30-second timeouts and full timeouts. When I was at Southside, you got two timeouts per half and they were all the same amount of time.”
While Westbrook is fielding a very young varsity team this year with two juniors, one sophomore, three freshmen and three eighth-graders, Jester is trying to instill the fundamentals into them so that they can be successful in coming years.
“It’s hard right now because we’re not winning many games,” she said. “But I’m trying to prepare them so they can be winners next year. I’m also trying to get more girls to come out for the team.”