Leonard was NSA’s tiniest giantess

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 29, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

During her time on the basketball court, the 5-foot-5-inch Claire Leonard was often the smallest player there. But her heart wouldn’t have fit inside Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.

To make an analogy, if NSA basketball were tonight’s Academy Awards, Leonard would have probably gotten a Best Supporting Actress statuette. She was often the set-up person for the main events that were Lexi Holland, Ann-Taylor Spain or Michelle Boucher. Like John Stockton did for Karl Malone for so many years as members of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, Leonard often, as I once wrote in a cutline, &uot;did what she did best; firing an assist to one of her taller teammates.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

All too often in sports of any kind, there’s someone who always wants to own the spotlight. A player, usually a legend only in his or her own mind, that hogs the ball, takes all the shots, and expects to be rewarded handsomely by coaches, fans, parents, everyone. But it takes that many more guts to do the opposite – to stand back and let someone else get the credit, and know that, no matter what the scorebook or local newspaper says, you played an integral part of the team’s success, one that they couldn’t have reached without you.

That was always Leonard’s specialty. Though she dropped in a career high 100+ points this season, nearly every play involved her bringing the ball upcourt, passing into the paint, and hoping that her teammates could net the nylon (of course, if they couldn’t, Leonard could dare the opposing team to try a fast break on her. Many tried, few survived). Fortunately, she did it as well (or probably better) than any other TCIS point guard.

&uot;Claire always focused on how many assists she could get in a game,&uot; Holland said. &uot;That was what she was looking for. She made a lot of goals like that for herself, and she usually made them. She wasn’t selfish at all.

&uot;She could dribble the ball as well as anyone else in the league. She was an awesome ball-handler; you could never tell whether she was right- or left-handed. We could have won very few games without her.&uot;

Though coach Jill Van Guilder had a fair amount of familiarity with her girls before the season started – she’d coached the junior varsity squad to a TCIS title the year before, and assisted with the varsity team that made it to the TCIS title game – it’s never too simple for a new coach to adapt to her position. Fortunately, players like Leonard were there to help her.

&uot;I needed Claire to be the floor leader,&uot; Van Guilder said. &uot;She improved tremendously on seeing the court – she was seeing things that no one else did, like passing lanes and open teammates.&uot;

Perhaps one of the most defining moments in Leonard’s career, at least in the eyes of this reporter, came just a few weeks ago, on Feb. 19

The Lady Saints were battling visiting Portsmouth Christian, and things weren’t going well. Though Leonard herself had sank a jumper to close the first quarter ahead 8-7, the Lady Patriots had charged to a 17-14 halftime lead and scored the first four points of the second half.

Lesser cagers might have panicked and started to make mistakes. Fortunately, Leonard was far above that level.

I watched her address her teammates during a timeout, and they were listening well. Then the local ladies went out and followed their smallest leader to arguably their biggest win of the season.

Leonard gunned assists to Holland and Ashlee Robb. Free throws by Leonard and Holland got the team to within one, and Leonard tossed yet another assist to Courtney White for the lead. She then swished a pair of free throws to go ahead, 26-25. In less than six minutes, the Saints, not known for their high-powered offensive prowess, had turned a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead, one that they carried all the way to a 36-34 victory.

As it turned out, it was the last non-district win for Van Guilder, Leonard, Spain and Holland. After beating Greenbrier Christian in their &uot;Senior Night&uot; game, the Lady Saints fell in the first round of the TCIS.

Van Guilder soon announced her intention to leave the school and move to Maryland. Leonard is one of the reasons that her only year as head Lady Saint was a blast.

&uot;Claire wasn’t just an extremely talented athlete,&uot; said the coach, &uot;she was a great kid. I got more from her then I ever could have asked for.&uot;

So did all of Suffolk.