Grovetown junior Ebony Wells has verbally accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Georgia Tech.
Even as she hobbles around practices -- she tore her anterior cruciate ligament last spring in an AAU tournament and recently got off crutches -- coach Jamie Echols says he notices things he rarely sees in high school athletes.
"Everything she does still looks real athletic -- the way she moves, just everything," Echols said of the 6-foot-3 power forward.
Coaches say Division I talent in a high school player is easy to pinpoint, and there has been a spike in those kinds of players around the area lately. A year after three players signed with Division I schools, the area already has four players committed or signed with Division I schools this season. That number should increase by the spring.
Warren County's Candice Warthen signed with Arizona, Hephzibah's Aarika Judge signed with Central Florida, Westside's Aishya Wofford signed with Georgia Southern and Wells verbally committed to Georgia Tech over the summer. Glenn Hills senior guard Jessica Morton, as good as any player in the area, will almost certainly become the fifth Division I player in the area by the end of the NCAA's April signing period, which would represent the largest recent area total that any coach can remember for girls basketball.
"There are a lot of good players around here," Judge said after signing a letter of intent to accept a scholarship from Central Florida earlier this month. "I think all of us like playing (against) the best."
Having a Division I player is vital to a deep postseason run, as several area teams showed last year. That kind of talent typically can predict success, because coaches said one player can make a significant difference on the high school level relative to a sport such as football.
Consider last season: Aiken, with two Division I seniors, won two games and advanced to the Class AAAA quarterfinals in South Carolina. Hephzibah and Judge advanced to the state quarterfinals in Georgia. Laney, with future Atlantic Coast Conference player Taylor Ayers in the post, won 21 consecutive games before falling to eventual champion Buford in the semifinals. Buford, of course, had a Southeastern Conference recruit at forward.
Division I talent can also create high expectations for teams. North Augusta junior point guard Kayla West enjoyed a breakout sophomore season and established expectations that will follow her for the rest of her high school career.
"The sky's the limit with her, to be honest with you," North Augusta coach Jared Adamson said. "She has the potential to turn that skill and ability into a Division I player."
Adamson said he met with West before the season and reminded her the importance of continuing to work hard.
"You put yourself on the map last year," he remembered telling her. "Other teams are going to be ready for you, so you have to keep up that high level of play."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.