Peabody girls basketball hosting home playoff game behind juniors, first-year coach

LaMar Gafford
Alexandria Town Talk

During one of his first practices at Peabody, Gary Stewart knew that his girls basketball team had the potential to win a district title.

The Lady Warhorses (15-13, 8-0 District 3-4A) not only won District 3-4A for the first time since 2015, but earned their first home playoff game since that season and will host Booker T. Washington-Shreveport in the first round of the LHSAA playoffs Thursday.

“I’m very humbled to even be in this position,” Stewart said. “It means a lot to win a district championship in my first year of coaching.”

The Peabody Lady Warhorses defeated the Tioga Lady Indians, 50-28, to become the District 3-4A champions for the first time since 2015.

Stewart, a former standout at Vidalia and starter at Northwestern State, accepted the Peabody job last summer with little fanfare when principal Dennis Stewart — no relation — appointed him to take over for Roslyn Jones, who led the program to three straight playoff appearances from 2019-2021.

There was some backlash at first among program supporters as Peabody was handing the keys to a first-year coach, but it did not bother Stewart.

“I didn’t really listen to it,” Stewart said. “I kept my head down and stayed in the gym with those girls. To come out on top in the end, it means more than people actually think it does. It touches my heart, so I’m very proud of what we’ve built and we’re still building, because the job’s not done yet.”

Peabody junior Katrina Lavalais (23) goes up for a shot as the Lady Warhorses defeated the Tioga Lady Indians to become the district champions.

Stewart has a lot to look forward to as Peabody has no seniors and relies on six juniors led by guard LaTraneice McNeill and post players Katrina Lavalais and Katreal Earthly.

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McNeill and Earthly have been steady during district play by scoring in double figures during six of the eight games, while Lavalais has played her best ball in the back half of that slate — averaging 16.2 points and 9.5 rebounds in her last four games.

As a result, the Lady Warhorses finished the regular season strong by winning eight of their last nine after starting the year 2-6.

“From where we’ve started to now, we’ve progressed a lot,” Earthly said. “There’s a lot more teamwork and our bonding has gotten better.”

Something that helped the Lady Warhorses grow and gain chemistry was Stewart splitting his junior group during practices so they can learn their strengths and weaknesses and encouraging them in other activities outside of basketball, such as journaling.

Peabody junior LaTraneice McNeill (left) guards a Tioga ballhandler during a 50-28 Lady Warhorse win Feb. 11.

He also made a few tweaks to the lineup, which include allowing the versatile Earthly to handle more point guard duties, McNeill to be more of a shooting guard and the shot-blocking Lavalais to more of an inside player than an outside one.

“Meeting (Coach) in the beginning, we had a lot of ups and downs, but he saw that I had a lot of potential and that I was very talented,” Lavalais said.

Stewart did not have to look far for an inspiration in coaching, as he has utilized the same principles that his college coach, Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy, implemented.

Stewart was a starter for the Demons from 2010-2014 and helped the 2012-13 team win the Southland Conference Tournament and made the NCAA Tournament before losing to Florida in the Round of 64.

Northwestern State senior guard Gary Stewart (44) guards LSU’s Johnny O'Bryant during a 2013 game.

“Those whole coaching staff and all of the players at Northwestern State built me to who I am as a coach,” Stewart said. “I still use drills that I learned there and I built my whole philosophy around Coach Mike, Coach Bill Lewit and Coach (Jeff) Moore. Their philosophy of run-and-gun and quick shots made me the player that I am and it made me the coach that I am.”

While the last six seasons have resulted in little playoff success, the Lady Warhorses were consistent under late coach Michael Burks before he unexpectedly passed away during the 2014-15 seasonthe last time they hosted a playoff game.

In Burks’ nine seasons from 2006-2015, Peabody made it to the regional round in eight of those seasons and made the LHSAA Ladies Sweet Sixteen in 2007.

This group of Lady Warhorses hope that hosting a playoff game is the start of a renaissance.

“It would bring back a tradition,” McNeill said. “We’re the new era of the Lady Warhorses, so us bringing in that new vibe, I feel like that would be pretty dope."