One in a series of player profiles previewing the 2020-21 City Six college basketball season.
“We still want you here.”
When you’ve torn an ACL for the second time – first one, left knee … then the right knee – those words stay with you. Kayla Spruill was scared. She’s been counting on a full scholarship to college, had felt like she’d earned it. But would those schools stay with her?
"They’d seen me play my freshman year,'' Spruill said of La Salle, but that was before the first tear. Even after that, the Explorers saw her, saw her game still was top-shelf, and offered a scholarship. She hadn’t committed anywhere when she tore the other ligament.
"Might not happen,'' Spruill thought to herself.
"We still want you here,'' La Salle’s coaches told Spruill. She didn’t hesitate to commit.
There was a coaching change, but at that point, Mountain MacGillivray, the new Explorers coach, didn’t see any down side as he took over a rebuilding project. This 6-footer from Baltimore could make an open shot. He kept an open mind.
"She was naturally quiet and reserved, and she was not at her peak conditioning,'' MacGillivray said. “No one on the team was, so that was a big advantage for her.”
As a freshman, Spruill started nine games, but her coach didn’t see the competitiveness he wanted. “If she made a shot or two, she stayed in.”
“The first game, I was really, really nervous,’' Spruill said of her freshman year, back on the court after missing so much time after her second knee injury. “These girls are all bigger. Everyone is a lot more aggressive. I was just real tentative in games and in practice.”
Toward the end of the season, coach and player had a heart-to-heart.
“The kid we had this year doesn’t play next year,’' MacGillivray remembers telling Spruill. “You can’t play on this team being the same personality.”
Off the court, he noted, “She’s the best kid in the entire world. On the court, not fired up or aggressive.”
He added to her, “If you do make that change, you’re a kid who fits the system really well.”
If you’re guessing a coach doesn’t say all this publicly if it didn’t work out, congrats. Read on. Spruill came back a new player.
"From day one, she was the best player on our team,'' MacGillivray said. “Both ends. Efficient offensively. Rebounded and defended really well. If I was betting, I don’t know if I would have bet that. Now, she’s telling people what to do in practice. Her jump is something.”
After averaging 11 points and 6.1 rebounds a game as a sophomore, Spruill was named most improved player in the Big 5.
"When I took over, it was really hard for a lot of the kids to pick up my expectations, what I wanted,'' La Salle’s coach said. “Kayla didn’t have a problem with that. She understood the offense. She’s playing chess to other people’s checkers a lot of times.”
"It just felt good, just knowing my teammates were able to count on me,'' Spruill said of the jump she made last season.
There were some big nights, including 24 points and 12 rebounds against St. Joseph’s, and winning a thriller at Penn State. “I’ll remember that game forever,” she said.
Maybe 13-17 overall and 7-9 in the Atlantic 10 doesn’t sound like the top of the world, but both more than doubled the previous season’s win totals. It’s been awhile since La Salle could move into a new season with hopes on the rise.
"The momentum, it really felt like we could do anything,'' Spruill said of last season’s progress.