CHEYENNE – Jayla Jones sat nervously on the bench watching her Cheyenne Central teammates who were deadlocked in a back-and-forth affair with cross-town rival Cheyenne East in a mid-February 2018 showdown at Storey Gym.
Central coach Glen Kirkbride, then in his second season at the helm of the program after coming over from Cheyenne South, knew one of his reserves would need to make an impact in the game. He looked up and down the bench before pointing to Jones.
Just 15 years old and shaking to her core, the then-sophomore jumped at the chance.
“It was super nerve-wracking. I didn’t want to disappoint (my teammates),” Jones said. “… I was going into a big game against really good players (and) against a team that was hard to beat. I wanted to go out there and prove myself, especially as a (younger player).
“I was waiting to go in and when (Kirkbride) finally told me to go in, I was like, ‘OK, bet!’” Jones quipped. “So, I went out there and did my thing.”
Jones didn’t score any points that night, and Central lost 39-30. But Kirkbride saw something else in his up-and-coming player – a flash of potential mixed with skill, size and athleticism.
“That was an eye-opening thing for me,” the coach said of Jones’ performance. “That was a deal that said she can handle what we throw at her, so we need to be throwing more at her.”
Though, the plan going into that second regular-season game against East didn’t necessarily involve Jones stepping into a high-leverage situation and having to learn on the fly.
“It was unexpected, but it was something she rose to,” Kirkbride added.
“With her pedigree and her build, we knew she was going to be something special. At that point, I’m not going to lie, I’m not smart enough to tell you I knew she was going to be great right then.”
Kirkbride trusted his gut. He was right.
Jones has flourished since being cast into the fire fresh off the bench that wintery February night in 2018.
The 6-foot-2 center/small forward played in 26 games that season. She averaged 1.2 points per game and snagged 41 total rebounds for the Lady Indians, who advanced all the way to the semifinals of the Wyoming Class 4A state basketball tournament in Casper.
“Oh, God. My first game, I wasn’t as confident as I am now,” Jones said. “Back then, I (thought), ‘Oh, I can shoot, but I don’t really want to. I feel like I won’t make it.’ But now, the confidence I have, I feel like that’s one big thing that has gone up for me, and it makes me a better player.”
Get better Jones did.
As a junior last winter, Jones was third on the Indians in scoring (7.3 points per game), averaged nearly four rebounds per game and led the team in 3-point shooting (18 of 61). Her efforts helped the Indians to a 17-10 overall record and the 4A state tournament.
Jones’ successes last season have already helped her carve a roadway to another successful campaign this year, she said, in part because of her relentless efforts to soak in every minute on the court – good or bad – and use it as a learning experience.
“Now I know if I have someone that’s bigger than me or slower than me, I know that they probably can’t guard me,” Jones said. “I’m pretty fast for my height (and) my size. I can shoot well for someone my size.
“I can attack (the rim), especially for someone my size, and I feel like that’s something I learned that I can do. I’m also super confident in doing that, and that definitely improves my game knowing what I can and can’t do.”
As Jones gears up for her final prep season on the court, she will be handed more responsibilities, Kirkbride said. Mainly, Jones will be asked to be more of a leader – both vocally and by example.
“She is great with the rest of the team, but she is not one that’s just going to stand and direct traffic and do that kind of leadership,” Kirkbride said. “But we’re asking her to do a little bit of that this year, to be the older one to teach the younger ones our culture and what we do. We’re asking a lot of her, even again this year. I know we have the last few years; we’re doing even more now.”
Jones is more than willing to rise to the challenge and, just like her coach, she has lofty expectations for this season, which tips off at noon Thursday vs. Riverton in Riverton.
“If we all work together as a team, we’ll definitely get somewhere far,” she said. “It’s going to be a good team.”