Born to Ball

Star senior plans to continue her career at East Tennessee


McKenna White

Drive — Senior E’Lease Stafford, an East Tennessee State University commit, aims her eyes at the rim as she prepares her next move during the Feb. 27 substate win over Shawnee MIssion East.

By Gary Schmidt, Editor in Chief

It was seventh grade when senior E’Lease Stafford first realized she could be special in basketball. She scored with ease, and ran toe-to-toe with any and all of her competitors. What separated her from the rest, however, was the fact that she was the only female on her AAU team.

“I knew that I could be something special when I used to play on a boys AAU team back in like seventh grade, because if I could get some buckets against them, then I could dominate playing against any girls team,” Stafford said.

Stafford always found herself drawn to the physical nature of basketball. Her rough, downhill style of play has characterized the Lady Lions program over the past four years, during which she has been a regular starter.

She demonstrates killer versatility in her scoring ability, but every time she holds the ball in her hands, there is a sense in the air that the ball is going straight to the hoop.

Playing with this reckless abandon was a blessing and a curse for Stafford. It transformed her into one of the most feared scorers in the Sunflower League and opened up countless open shots for her teammates.

However, with each full-effort drive came a toll on her body. And eventually a torn ACL.

This setback for Stafford was momentary, however. Almost immediately after the injury, she was determined to come back with a renewed energy

“Obviously it wasn’t a great experience tearing my ACL, because of the pain I had to go through,” Stafford said. “But I knew that I wanted to be back better than ever, so I sucked the pain up and just dealt with it cause I wanted to be back to my old self.”

Transferring this same energy that she put into each drive to the basket into each week of therapy, little by little Stafford came back to the same level she was before surgery.

Being away from the game for nine months was a challenge for Stafford, but it also taught her a lot about the game and herself.
“Taking a break from basketball showed that I don’t need basketball to define me, because of the other great qualities I have,” Stafford said.

Coming back from her nine month rehab, Stafford had a career year, earning her first trip to the state tournament and being named the Sunflower League Player of the Year.

No longer was she simply a threat driving the basketball. In her time off, she honed the skills she needed to become a true star. A refined mid-range game in addition to much-improved outside shooting transformed Stafford into a threat to score the ball from anywhere on the court at any time.

Stafford credited the physical work she put into the game, but also stressed the impact a belief in herself and her teammates made.
The success Stafford enjoyed was noticed by more than just the Sunflower League. In her senior season, Stafford was nominated for the McDonald’s All-American Game and received interest from numerous Division 1 colleges.

This past November, Stafford announced her commitment to East Tennessee State University. Despite being more than 13 hours away, Stafford cited its feeling of home as one of her main reasons for committing.

“ETSU made me feel like it was home, even though it’s a lot different than Lawrence,” Stafford said. “The atmosphere, players and coaches made it feel like home. Plus, I never really had the opportunity to play for a female coach. So being able to experience something different is what drew me there.”

Basketball has taught Stafford how to make the most of any situation, whether it is recovering from surgery or learning how to play with the boys. In this next chapter of her life, Stafford remains positive that she will continue to see basketball for the positives that first drew her to it.

“What first drew me to basketball was that it is a fast moving game which requires physical inputs from everybody,” said Stafford. “Basketball in particular teaches you how to optimize what you have… so being a tall, skinny player I had to learn how to be quick and dominating.”