STRATFORD—Jayquan Kirkland’s ride toward Wednesday’s rivalry game between Stratford and Bunnell had been a bumpy one.
That’s to be expected, however, as the Red Devils freshman forward had a lot to adapt to by making the jump straight to varsity basketball.
The game was faster, and the opponents were stronger and better.
There were good days, there were tough days.
Wednesday, however, was a great day.
Kirkland netted 13 points, grabbed some key rebounds and played some impressively tough defense to help the Red Devils defeat the Bulldogs, 58-55, inside a sold-out Needham Memorial Gymnasium.
“He was great,” Stratford coach Tim Swaller said. “For a ninth grader to come in and play in this game, in this environment, and the way he played, I was pleased and impressed.”
Standing 6-foot-2, with long, lanky features and some top-notch athleticism, Kirkland appears as though he could be the future of Stratford High basketball.
If so, he officially arrived against the Bulldogs, letting the game come to him instead of forcing the action, and making a big difference for his team.
“I just had to step up my game,” Kirkland said. “They’ve been telling me that all week, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Last week, against Brookfield, Kirkland didn’t have his best game, according to a senior teammate.
But that didn’t lessen the respect his older teammates have for his ability.
It was more lesson than lessen.
“I knew he’d be legit, but he had to get his motor going,” Mike August said. “He has so much raw skill. I had to get on him against Brookfield and he responded. I’m really proud of him. This will be his program someday.”
Against Bunnell, Kirkland came off the bench and immediately made an impact on the game.
With Stratford trailing 16-12 late in the first quarter, Kirkland hit a bucket from the low post and then drained a 3-pointer to give the Red Devils a 17-16 lead after the first quarter.
After the Bulldogs opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer by Elijah Alexandre, it was Kirkland who answered back with a tally that showed Stratford would not suffer a second quarter swoon as they did back on Jan 4, the first time the two teams met this season.
Kirkland only had two points in that game.
In this game, he still wasn’t done.
He calmly sank two foul shots in the third quarter with Stratford clinging to a one-point lead.
He then closed out that stanza, taking a Joe August feed and laying it in to put the Red Devils up by a 44-39 count entering the final eight minutes.
In the fourth, Kirkland’s final two points of the night pushed Stratford’s advantage to seven points at 50-43, the Red Devils’ biggest lead of the night.
“I thought once he got going, he played with confidence,” Swaller said. “For anybody, but certainly a ninth grader, that was huge. He made a few plays early and was able to feed off that in the game.”
Seventeen games into his first varsity campaign, though, Swaller reminds Kirkland that he’s not really a freshman anymore.
“We talk all the time with him. He’s not a 9th grader anymore,” Swaller said. “Once you’re midway through your freshman year, you’re in. And he did a heckuva job tonight.”
While Kirkland said he still considers himself a freshman, his games does not.
“I’ve come a long way,” he admitted. “In the beginning, I was playing nervous and not making lay-ups. Things weren’t going good. Now, I’m a lot more comfortable.”
Wednesday’s game proved that 13-fold.
“He played very big,” Stratford senior Jack Ryan said. “The last couple of games, he hadn’t been himself, but he stepped it up today. He was a big part of why we won and for a freshman, I’m really proud of him.”
He might still be a freshman on paper, but out on the court Jayquan Kirkland is starting to play a lot older. And that’s a good thing for the Stratford Red Devils.