From backyard battles to Miss Basketball, Spring Garden’s Austin now in rare company

Spring Garden junior point guard Ace Austin won the Alabama Sports Writers Association Miss Basketball at the Montgomery Renaissance on Tuesday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

MONTGOMERY – On Monday evening, Spring Garden junior point guard Ace Austin’s older brothers Riley and Cooper were teasing her about her acceptance speech, provided she won the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Miss Basketball honor on Tuesday at the Montgomery Renaissance.

“Cooper and Riley wanted me to get up there and say ‘I’m thankful for my brothers and all the tears they’ve brought to my eyes,’” she said. “Those backyard battles brought a lot back to me. All the fights in the back yard have helped me be tough and to be where I am now.”

Where Ace is now is in rare company.

The University of Alabama commitment became the first Class 1A Miss Basketball award winner since Speake’s Starr Orr in 2004. Austin is also the third girls underclassman to win Miss Basketball, and just the second player from Cherokee County since 1993 to earn the honor. Ironically, that was University of Alabama alum Leah Monteith Nelson, who played at Cherokee County High School from 1990-93.

In leading the Lady Panthers (33-1) to their second straight state title last season, Austin averaged 20.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 3.6 steals per contest. She also won her second straight Class 1A Player of the Year honor on Tuesday.

And yes, in her acceptance speech for Miss Basketball, Austin thanked her brothers for “always pushing me to be the best I can be.” She also thanked the entire Spring Garden community, her teammates and all her coaches.

“My heart was pounding a little bit,” Austin said on her reaction to being named Miss Basketball. “I knew there were plenty of other good people in this building who could’ve gotten this. I’m just thankful for everything you (the ASWA) have done, the AHSAA and the support. I’m just thankful for God and my teammates to give me this opportunity.

“Ever since I was younger, I’ve always wanted to represent Cherokee County and Spring Garden. Now I’ve had a good opportunity of doing that. (Class) 1A schools haven’t gotten that much recognition. To be able to represent our small 500-student school means a lot. I’m just thankful for this opportunity.”

Austin’s father and head coach Ricky Austin said he felt “a little different feeling than anything I ever experienced with basketball before” when his daughter’s name was announced as the winner.

“Coming off of last year, with the people who got things in front of her who were seniors, you think ‘Well, we’ve got a chance,’” Coach Austin said. “When she won Gatorade Player of the Year, you knew that this had taken on another level. When they announced her name, there was a very proud few seconds there.

“I’m thankful the sportswriters recognized a small kid from a small town from a small school. I think that’s really special, not that small kids always get looked over. I just appreciate them recognizing the talent and what’s been accomplished there and put it on a state level with everybody.”

Coach Austin also added how important Ace’s Miss Basketball award means to the Spring Garden community.

“I think there are a lot of little girls who look up to Ace,” he said. “Ace is probably a little undersized, but she’s accomplishing some big things like this through hard work, discipline, commitment and being allowed to be coached. If anybody wants to do this, they can. You’ve just got to realize what all it takes. Maybe they’ll use Ace as an example.”

Another person Ace Austin commended for helping her achieve her latest honors was one of her rivals, Sand Rock senior guard Kaitlyn St.Clair.

St.Clair was also a Class 2A Player of the Year finalist, the Lady Wildcats’ first. She averaged 23.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game in leading the Lady Wildcats (25-8) back to the Northeast Regionals for the first time since 2020.

Mars Hill Bible eighth-grade guard Belle Hill won the 2A Girls Player of the Year.

“I always had to guard (St.Clair),” Ace Austin said. “My goal every game was to not let her hit a three. If she hit one three she was going to hit about 10 more. I think me guarding her has helped me tremendously to be able to guard everybody else. There’s not another shooter in Alabama quite like her. To be able to go up against her, Sand Rock and such a great coach like Lisa (Bates), it’s an honor to have that competition in the county.”

St.Clair shares the same sentiment about Ace Austin.

“I don’t want this to sound like bragging, but I think Ace and I deserve to be here because we’ve worked so hard,” St.Clair said. “A lot of people don’t see the hours we spend inside the gym. I think it’s something special that we both get to be here and experience this opportunity together.”

Bates called St.Clair’s finalist honor “special.”

“It’s super-hard to make all-state in basketball, but then to get to the top three as finalist for player of the year is something special,” Bates said. “I think it’s pretty awesome to have two in our county who got to some down here. We’re super-proud of Ace too. We respect her as a player. It’s not just talent. For both of those girls, it’s a family affair. They pour in so much extra time. It’s good for them to have this kind of recognition. It’s not just what the coach does with them. It’s the extra that got them to this point. It’s not just time in the gym during practice.”

St.Clair is the sister of current Arkansas State guard Jacob St.Clair, who was last year’s Class 2A Boys Player of the Year. It is believed the St.Clairs are the first brother-sister duo to ever be ASWA Basketball Player of the Year finalists in back-to-back years.

“Me and and him being the first from Sand Rock, I think that’s neat,” Kaitlyn St.Clair said. “We’ve put in so much hard work together at practice a lot of people don’t see. I think it’s an honor to be here.”

“I think that’s super-special too,” Bates said of the St.Clair siblings. “They’ve worked so many years in the gym together. They’re both good athletes and good people. It’s this good family that’s pushed them and worked with them.”

St.Clair called her last season as a Lady Wildcat “remarkable.”

“I tried to push our team every day in practice to make it back to JSU. I wanted to make it further, but I’m proud we made it there,” she said. “We haven’t been since my eighth-grade year. To play on that court again just felt good. I’m proud of how we did this season and the goals we accomplished.”

Buckhorn sophomore Caleb Holt won Mr. Basketball on Tuesday. Holt, a 6-foot-6 guard, averaged 20.2 points for the Bucks, who finished 23-5 and won a second straight Class 6A championship.

Below is a list of all of Tuesday’s winners.

Ace Austin, Spring Garden

Caleb Holt, Buckhorn

(top 5 players regardless of classification)

Ace Austin, Spring Garden (Miss Basketball)
Leah Brooks, Hazel Green
Jordan Hunter, Hewitt-Trussville
Ivey Maddox, Good Hope
Belle Hill, Mars Hill Bible

Caleb Holt, Buckhorn (Mr. Basketball)
DeWayne Brown, Hoover
Caleb Harrison, Huntsville
Ty Davis, Mountain Brook
Cam Dooley, Valley

7A: Jordan Hunter, Hewitt-Trussville
6A: Leah Brooks, Hazel Green
5A: Missy Odom, Jasper
4A: Ivey Maddox, Good Hope
3A: Maddie Smith, Trinity
2A: Belle Hill, Mars Hill Bible
1A: Ace Austin, Spring Garden
AISA: Takayla Davis, Glenwood

7A: DeWayne Brown, Hoover
6A: Caleb Holt, Buckhorn
5A: Cam Dooley, Valley
4A: Micah Caster, Jackson
3A: Trey Simpson, Hillcrest-Evergreen
2A: Carson Thrasher, Mars Hill Bible
1A: Trey Kellogg, Covenant Christian
AISA: Haiden Harper, Lee-Scott

Spring Garden’s Ace Austin, left, and Sand Rock’s Kaitlyn St.Clair were both honored on Tuesday in Montgomery by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
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