By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

In the summer before Jeaniece Slater's first year at Hartselle High, she asked Vickie Orr to meet her at the gym one hour before each workout.

Slater wanted to play Orr one-on-one.

Challenging the 6-foot-3 senior to one-on-one was a bold move for the 5-7 freshman. Orr led Hartselle to its first girls state championship in the previous February. She was one of the top basketball players in the country and would go on to star at Auburn and later in the Olympics.

"I never beat her, but that was OK. Playing her helped make me become the basketball player I became," Slater said.

Slater became one of the winningest basketball players in Morgan County history. In her four years, the Tigers won 100 games, made three Final Four appearances and won one state championship.

In 1988, the Alabama Sports Writers Association started awarding the best player in the state with the Miss Basketball award. Slater was the first player to receive the honor.

Along with the Miss Basketball honor, Slater was named Alabama's Gatorade Player of the Year, Class 5A Player of the Year and The Decatur Daily Player of the Year.

Slater will be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 5. She follows Orr and Nivada Spurlock from the 1985 state championship team into the hall of fame.

"It's great to see some of the girls from that team getting honored this many years after they played," Jerry Reeves, the team's head coach, said. "They were a special group of young ladies."

Slater's love of sports started with her father. Larry, who was inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame in 2016, was the director at the Hartselle Civic Center. The former star player at Cotaco introduced his daughter to basketball.

"When I was 9, we started an all-girls team," Slater said. "We played the first half of the season in the 8 and under boys league. We played the second half of the season in the 10 and under boys league.

"My dad expected some complaints about girls playing boys, but most of the complaints were about how bad the girls beat the boys."

When Slater was in the sixth grade, she played on Hartselle's first softball team to win a Dixie Youth World Series. That group of girls eventually became a big part of Hartselle's state championship basketball teams in 1984 and 1985.

"We all just loved winning so much that we worked really hard to keep from losing," Slater said. "That's why I rode my bike to the gym every day to play Vickie one-on-one."

Despite being just a freshman, Slater played a big role in the championship season.

"People always think about Vickie being the star of that team and she was," Reeves said, "but it was a really young team. We had to have young players like Jeaniece step up and contribute and thankfully they did."

The 1985-86 season was a transformation for Hartselle basketball. Reeves had moved into administration. John Cochran was the new head coach. Orr was playing for Auburn. It created an opportunity for other players, including Slater, to shine in the spotlight.

Slater's skill was driving inside and passing the ball to an open teammate for a basket. She could also pull up and drain a 3-point basket. Slater sometimes played with a confidence that she admits rubbed opposing fans the wrong way.

"One time we were playing at Cullman. When we came out to warm up, their entire student section was holding up signs that said 'Slater Haters,'" Slater said.

Slater had an answer for the "Slater Haters" early in the game after she hit a three. She turned to the student section, formed each hand into a pistol and went bang, bang toward the student section.

"Probably should not have done that, but that's just how I felt," Slater said.

It would be Slater's senior season before Hartselle would find its way back to the state championship game. It was March 12, 1988 at Calhoun Community College. Hartselle faced Pell City in the Class 5A title game.

Pell City was coached by Jeaniece's father, Larry. Jeaniece's parents had divorced. Larry got his teaching degree and began coaching basketball. In 1988, he was at Pell City coaching one of the top players in the state in freshman Tonya Tice.

There was a packed house of 4,000 at Calhoun to watch the meeting of father vs. daughter and the meeting of two of the top players in the state. The teams had not met during the regular season.

The crowd did not leave disappointed. Hartselle led by as many as 12 points in the third quarter. Pell City mounted a comeback and tied the game at 74-74 with 32 seconds left to play. Hartselle scored with 17 seconds left to make it 76-74. Pell City answered with Tice hitting a 3-point shot with three seconds left to win, 77-76.

In the decades since that loss, Slater prefers to look at the impact that game had on girls basketball in Alabama. That game helped kick start a movement that eventually brought the boys and girls state championships together in Birmingham.

"It was a great moment for my dad," Slater said. "He was a great basketball coach. It was what he needed to give him a platform to promote the sport as head coach at Wallace State."

Slater signed with Southern Mississippi. She left after one year to play for her dad at Wallace. She finished her career at UNA. After graduation, Slater headed back to Wallace State to be her dad's assistant and the school's head softball coach.

Eventually, Slater decided to step away from college coaching because of the demands on her time while trying to coach two sports. The change in lifestyle has not kept her away from basketball. She gives private lessons to girls trying to possibly become the next Jeaniece Slater.

"Basketball is a representation of life," Slater said. "The lessons you learn on the gym floor are about so much more than just basketball. To be successful in anything, you have to believe in yourself."

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