Sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises
By BOB YORK
Let this story serve as a shout-out to Jenaire Hodge. It’s not about her, but it couldn’t have been written without her.
Without her, it’s quite likely the gold medals from the last two New England Prep School Athletic Council Class AA Girls Basketball Tournaments wouldn’t be sitting in Worcester Academy’s trophy case today.
Without her, college coaches and scouts wouldn’t have had to spend the past four winters memorizing New England’s highways and byways in an effort to check out a prospect who would culminate her prep school career rated No. 3 on the espnW HoopGuriz Rankings of the top 100 collegiate recruits in the country
Without her, NEPSAC would still be awaiting its first representative to ever participate in the McDonald’s All-American Girls Basketball Game since its inception 18 years ago.
Without her, Daniel’s Gymnasium would never have become a proving ground for her niece, Aliyah Boston, who has arguably become the best girls basketball player to ever compete under a NEPSAC banner.
When Boston came to the City of Worcester as an eighth-grader five years ago, she came here with a lofty goal and some even loftier assistance in mind. “With God’s help,” she said, “I wanted to become a McDonald’s All-American.” Well, Aliyah, mission accomplished. On February 13, that dream became reality when McDonald’s notified her that she was one of 24 seniors from throughout the country selected to play in that prestigious game.
Six weeks later, on March 27, Boston, a 6-4 center who will now move on to the collegiate level where she will play for the University of South Carolina, drew her storied prep school career to a close on the floor of the State Farm Arena in Atlanta by chalking up nine points and 10 rebounds to help lead the East past the West, 83-68.
Boston’s love affair with basketball began a long way from the hills of Worcester, as she grew up in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and was attracted to the sport after tagging along and watching her older sister, Alexis, play the game. As their affection for the game and ability to play it both increased, a change of venue appeared inevitable if they hoped to excel in the sport. After all, in the Virgin Islands, most kids their ages spend their time kicking balls into goals rather than shooting them through hoops.
So, following some family discussions, it was decided a change of scenery was essential to afford the sisters a better chance to thrive on the court as well as in the classroom. As for a destination, that would ultimately lie some 3,000 miles away, where Hodge … aka Aunt Jenaire ... aka Aliyah’s mother’s sister … was living about a 10-minute drive from the Worcester Academy campus.
While Aliyah has been playing just down the street, Alexis has not. The 6-3 forward attended Holy Name High School in Worcester for two years before moving on to play a year at Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, then, this winter spent her sophomore season at Labette Community College in Parsons, Kansas. While playing the post, she helped the Cardinals (21-11) finish ninth nationally in the National Junior College Women’s Basketball Association.
“It’s been hard,” acknowledged Aliyah of leaving her parents back in St. Thomas, “but both our mother and father were very supportive of the move and we feel very lucky that our aunt offered to take us in … none of this would have been possible without her. She’s been great, she supported the plan right from the start and she’s been our biggest fan ever since we arrived here.”
As for their supportive parents, both their dad, Al, who only dabbled in athletics recreationally, and their mom, Cleone, who admitted to being “too timid” to compete in sports as a youngster and “that’s why we’ve encouraged them to try whatever sport they like … because I wish I had someone to push me when I was younger,” Cleone told Walter Villa during an interview.
As far as family ties are concerned, this move has proven to be a win-win situation – for Aliyah and for Worcester Academy.
As for capturing the last two Class AA NEPSAC crowns, that’s literally just the tip of the iceberg for the Rams during Aliyah’s presence. During her four-year stay, Worcester chalked up an 84-10 record. That remarkable showing was the result in great part to Boston, who averaged a hefty 17.3 points per game to close out her career as the school’s top scorer in girls hoop history with 1,795 points. She also hauled down 11,070 rebounds during that four-year span, while handing out an average of 10.5 assists, 3.2 blocked shots and 1.8 steals per game.
“I feel very fortunate for the way things have turned out,” said Boston. “Without the understanding and backing of my parents to allow us to come here and without the willingness of my aunt to take us in, none of this would have ever been possible … to my family I’m deeply indebted.
“I’m also very thankful to the game of basketball,” added Boston. “I’m truly grateful for all the doors it has opened to me over the past four years.”
Boston’s personal trophy case back at Aunt Jenaire’s house has proven to be a receptacle for the hardware she has collected as payback for her hoop heroics. Front and center on the top shelf are the two NEPSAC Class AA MVP Awards she won following the 2018 and 2019 championship runs. Another top-shelf addition is this year’s Gatorade Massachusetts Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year Award
, which will fit in quite nicely with the identical Gatorade plaques she received following her sophomore and junior years.
When she’s not playing ball for Worcester, chances are she’s playing for USA Basketball, where she has also been quite successful. Recent endeavors have seen Boston and her countrywomen capture gold at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, as well as at the 2018 International Basketball Federation U-17 World Cup, where she earned a berth on the all-tourney team, and the 2017 FIBA Americas U-16 Championship, after which she was named the tourney MVP.
“The first time I saw Aliyah playing basketball was in middle school,” remembers Sherry Levin, the Rams head basketball coach, “ and I knew right then and there that if she came to Worcester, I’d have to make her my focal point. Even as an eighth-grader, she could do it all … shoot … pass … rebound … block shots … run the court.
“Aliyah is dedicated to getting better and finding athletes with that kind of commitment is hard to do in this day and age,” added Levin. “It was easy to see that she had all the tools to make it to the next level and way back at the beginning of her freshman season I told her ‘I’ll show you how to get there, but you have to do the work. Well, she’s done the work and four years later, she’s still getting better and better.”
Her coach readily acknowledged that she felt very fortunate she never had to send her team out on the same court against Boston “because it was nearly impossible to prepare to play against her … she’d force you to change your strategy … both offensively and defensively,” admitted Levin. “Offensively, at 6-4, and averaging more than three blocked shots a game, opponents had to be leery of how they approached the basket. Defensively, they’d double- and triple-team her. Although it never stopped her from scoring, it did take a physical toll on her … but she never missed a game in four years.”
“Aliyah has been a real find for this school … she’s the finest female basketball player I’ve ever seen,” said Worcester Athletic Director Ed Reilly, who has been overseeing Ram athletics for the past 16 years. “With her size, agility and footwork, she has the ability to alter a game. We’ve been able to surround Aliyah with a lot of talented teammates during her four years here, but she’s undoubtedly been the hub of those teams.
“She’s a remarkable player but more importantly, she’s a better person,” added Reilly. “She’s been a model student/athlete. She’s remained humble despite attaining so much notoriety and the entire Worcester Academy community is very proud of her.”
While Boston is the first girls’ basketball player representing a NEPSAC school to receive an invite to participate in the annual McDonald’s All-America Games, a dozen male NEPSAC players, meanwhile, have suited up for their game since its inception in 1977.
Tilton School, New Hampton School, Thayer Academy and The Governor’s Academy led the way with two representatives each, while Brewster Academy, Winchendon School, Vermont Academy and Beaver Country Day had one each.
Wayne Seldon (2013) and Alex Oriakhi (2009) hailed from Tilton, while New Hampton sent former standouts Noah Vonleh (2013) and Rashad McCants (2002) to the festivities. Thayer’s Michael Jones and Torin Francis made the trek in 2003 and 2002 respectively, as Dan Gadzuric (1998) and Steve Bucknall (1985) represented Govrernor's. Brewster’s T.J. Warren was picked to play in 2012, while Simisola Shittu (2018) is Vermont’s lone selection to date. Winchendon’s Randell Jackson participated in the 1995 contest, as did Wayne Turner of Beaver Country Day.
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