By Matthew Pagels | firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve seen a 5-foot-3 speedster slicing and dicing through defenses and wearing No. 11 for the Flagler Saints, you’ve probably heard the name Williesha “Shorty” Spencer.
Spencer, a junior at Flagler, has put on a show this year, leading the women’s basketball team to their first Peach Belt Conference playoff berth ever. The team placed third this season, owning a conference record of 10-9 (15-13 overall), a huge step from their 2-16 record last season.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Spencer, 20, is a rare talent. According to the Peach Belt Conference website, Spencer finished fifth overall in scoring in 2012-13, averaging 16.9 points per game. She also ranked fourth overall in 3-point field goal percentage, shooting 40.7 percent from the three-point range. To add on to the offensive accomplishments, Spencer was selected to the 2013 Daktronics NCAA Division II District III All-Southeast Region second-team and was selected as the TraveLynx Student-Athlete of the Week three times this season.
With those kinds of skills and accolades, most would think Spencer has been playing since grade school. Wrong.
“What people don’t know about me is that I actually started playing basketball in 10th grade,” Spencer said. “Sixth grade was when I knew I wanted to play because anytime I saw my uncles play it was just an urge that I had yet to let loose. But I just never really got the chance or time to get into it because I moved around a lot.”
“My mother was trying to save her marriage,” Spencer said. “My eighth grade year I was living in North Carolina and moved back to Pennsylvania so my mother could try and save her house, but we couldn’t so we left and went back to New York.”
Spencer’s mother, Shirley Everett, said she wanted her kids to know that change was good.
“I was looking for a better life for them and was going through a divorce at the same time,” she said.
Spencer attended Intermediate School 292 in Brooklyn. In 2007, she spent her freshman year of high school at the Academy for Young Writers. A year later, she transferred to Williamsburg Preparatory School, Harry Van Arsdale Educational Campus, in Brooklyn for the sole purpose of playing basketball.
“In order to develop my skills,” she said, “I spent a whole year practicing with a basketball organization by the name of MIKA,” or Making Intelligent Kids Athletes.
Spencer helped turn the Harry Van Arsdale Lady Cardinals basketball program around. In 2009, she finished second in the entire Public Schools Athletic League, scoring 26.7 points per game during her junior year, according to Brooklyn Daily. During the middle of her senior year, Spencer moved to Georgia to live with her mother, where she finished out the rest of her high school career at Ronald E. McNair High School. Spencer said her mother thought she had a better chance of success in Georgia.
“Some girls were very jealous of Williesha because she wasn’t the type of child that hung out,” Everett said. “She stayed on the basketball court and didn’t associate with anybody. She always had something going for herself, so some girls wanted to jump her.
“When they wanted to jump her I said, ‘That was enough.’ I didn’t want her to start living that lifestyle of where she has to defend herself every time someone comes to her.”
And the strategy paid off.
“During my senior season, we set a record in season-high wins, our best record recorded since 1999,” Spencer said.
After the season ended, low SAT scores kept Spencer from being able to go to a college of her choosing. She soon got accepted into Florida State College at Jacksonville.
“The coach from Southern University in Louisiana—the school I was originally supposed to go to—contacted the coach, who was then Debra Woods at FSCJ and she ended up contacting me and signing me,” Spencer said. “So I thank God for that opportunity.”
Spencer was on the move again after spending two years at FSCJ.
Flagler College women’s basketball Coach Erika Lang-Montgomery visited FSCJ to recruit two other players and she “ended up noticing me out of the bunch during practice,” Spencer said.
“I was given a pamphlet to look over and was told to call whenever I got the chance. The first time I spoke to Coach Lang-Montgomery and got more information, I just knew this was my school no matter how many D-I coaches or other coaches were recruiting me.”
“We expressed our interest to her,” Lang-Montgomery said. “She felt very connected quickly to our team and made the decision to join our program.”
In March 2012, Spencer transferred to Flagler College, and she said it was her faith that played a big part in that decision.
“I feel God led me to this school, and the reason is because his message to me was that it’s my time,” she said. “Everyday I prayed that he would guide me and with no questions asked I will just follow his lead—and I feel that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Flagler College junior guard Latesha Johnson, 20, also played a part persuading Spencer to make the move.
“I was the first person Shorty met on the team and a big part of her choosing to come to Flagler,” Johnson said. “While she was still playing at FSCJ, I would go over to Jacksonville on the weekends to hang out with her to make sure she knew this is where she wanted to be, and the bond hasn’t been broken.”
Since 2009, when Lang-Montgomery took over as head coach for the Flagler women’s basketball team, things have gone in a downward spiral. The addition of Spencer this year has turned that around.
“I have never coached a player as quick and explosive as she is,” Lang-Montgomery said. “She is small in stature, but her passion for the game is bigger than life. Her play matches her work ethic.”
Spencer’s mother sees a trend continue.
“Williesha always wants to go to a school where she could help turn things around,” Everett said.
Lang-Montgomery and assistant coach Sharnesha Smith have been an important part in her development, too. Spencer says both coaches worked hard to help her as a player through the display of life messages and through perfect practice.
“There are two different perspectives from both coaches, being that Smith recently played compared to Coach E (Lang-Montgomery),” she said. “Coach E helps me in the perspective of enhancing my weaknesses by telling me to put in work when no one is looking. Coach Smith has helped me in my development physically and mentally by teaching me consistency. She got on me about everything.”
Johnson looks up to Spencer as a person and as a player.
“In our case, I’m more of the big sister, but her score-first, point guard mentality is something that I truly admire about her,” Johnson said. “Before our very first game I said to her, ‘I’m the only person in this country that can guard you and guess what, we’re on the same team so you know what that means, right?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, it means I can’t be stopped.’ So her confidence is something that she holds that is going to take her places.”
Spencer said moving around so many times was difficult, but the team made her feel like she was one of them right away.
“We took all the new players in and made them feel comfortable and before you knew it, we had an unbreakable bond, a family and a sisterhood that went beyond basketball,” Johnson said.
No doubt, Spencer feels at home.
“The biggest difference from the college I’m at now compared to FSCJ is togetherness,” she said. “I feel at my previous school we never found that team chemistry, so if anything we were just individuals with a jersey on that said ‘Florida State College.’ At this school I feel everything is in sync. We have the family feel, connection and relationship with each other that I haven’t had since my junior year of high school.”
Arianna Roper is one of the few seniors on the team. She has spent the past four years enduring ups and downs, but this year was different from the losing seasons that have plagued Flagler since moving to the Peach Belt. This year’s team had Spencer.
“Shorty is basically the heartbeat of our team,” Roper said. “She made things happen when we needed her to. There were some days when she might have been off, and all players have those days, but I never saw the kid give up. She always strives for the best and that’s something every coach and teammate wants in a player.”
But Spencer isn’t a “one-man team.” She helps the players around her grow as well.
“There is no question that Shorty’s role on our team is to be a scorer as well as a defender,” Lang-Montgomery said. “Our team accepted that and knew we needed her to put shots up for us to be successful; however, she is a very humble player. She is aware of her ability, but she is not boastful about it, so she does not turn off or alienate her teammates.”
Johnson plays in the backcourt with Spencer.
“Her ability to get to the basket and score allows me to get open looks to shoot the ball because the defense is so worried about her,” she said.
“It is very refreshing to have someone come into the program with so much talent that it makes everyone else strive to reach their fullest potential,” Roper said.
Roper also makes sure Spencer plays to her full potential.
“I always made sure to tell her what I noticed from where I’m looking,” she said. “For someone with the talent that Shorty has, it was really just a matter of helping her keep her composure. Sometimes stress levels were on the rise, and all it really took to help her was a pat on the head or back and some reassurance that she’s got it under control.”
Flagler College Athletic Director Jud Damon said he’s pleased with the team’s success — and Spencer’s.
“She is truly a difference-maker and has played a key role in the improvement of our program,” Damon said. “She is a dynamic player who led the team in many offensive categories and seemed to be an emotional leader on the court. I think she is a potential All-American.”
And Spencer did just that. According to the Flagler College Athletics website, Spencer finished the season leading the Saints in scoring (16.9), points (473), field goal attempts per game (13.9), field goals made per game (6.0), free throw attempts per game (4.5), free throws made per game (3.6), assists per game (4.3), steals per game (2.4) and minutes played per game (31.7).
“She did a lot of things for this program that hadn’t been done, and in my opinion, is the best Flagler will ever see,” Johnson said. “She’s short, but she has the biggest heart. She hates to lose and she did more than what was asked of her in order for us to be successful.”
Now that the season has ended, Spencer is thinking about what’s next.
“Though we made it to the semi-finals, the thought is not to be settled with. As of right now, I’m just a number and a person who has a bigger message to send next season. I keep in mind to always remain humble and always know the biggest room there is, is the room for improvement.”
Photos by Dyann Busse/Flagler College