Hylton’s humble star

WOODBRIDGE — When she opened a copy of Street & Smith’s 2002 basketball magazine and found her name on a list of honorable mention high school All-Americans, Hylton senior Jasmine Byrd was flattered — and just a tad bit embarrassed.

Despite leading the Bulldogs to a school-record 20 wins and the program’s first district title last winter, she’s never really thought of herself as a star, much less one of the best players in the country. For Byrd, basketball is a team endeavor and the court is a place she goes to have fun. It’s never been about rankings, lists or self perception.

“It was really strange to see my name in a magazine like that,” said Byrd, who has already signed a letter of intent to play college basketball at UNC-Greensboro.

“It feels good, but it’s strange. Other people see me different than I see myself,” she said. “I see myself as Jasmine who loves to play basketball and will do anything to win.”

The same is true with soccer and volleyball, the other sports Byrd has played — and excelled in — most of her life.

What began as an attempt to emulate her father and older brother has evolved into something much more meaningful for the Bulldogs’ 17-year-old shooting guard.

“I’m just competitive. I always want to win and excel at everything I do,” Byrd said. “I think it just came naturally for me. I’ve always been on a basketball court or a soccer field. Every week there’d be something and I’d be somewhere.”

Her evolution into a multi-sport athlete began when Byrd was 4 years old. Back then, the soccer field was a place for her to run around and burn up energy. But a decade of playing on PWSI travel teams and AAU basketball teams changed all that.

Her introduction to competitive basketball came on a coed team where Byrd had to constantly prove herself.

“It was awful,” she said. “I never got the ball because I was a girl. You know how boys are.”

She fell for the sport anyway and by the time Byrd reached high school, she was already an accomplished athlete.

She helped lead the Graham Park Middle School basketball team to an undefeated season five years ago and quickly emerged as a standout player in volleyball after trying out for the first time in eighth grade.

“Sports takes up most of my time,” Byrd said. “I pretty much go from practice to practice, sometimes two or three a day. I’ve been doing it for so long it’s just natural to go from one practice to another, go home and do homework and go to sleep. It’s always been that way.”

A demanding schedule and Byrd’s competitive nature have produced amazing results. As a three-sport varsity athlete, she’s been to the Group AAA state tournament in volleyball and soccer and the Northwest Region Tournament in basketball.

As a sophomore, Byrd was the leading scorer — 13 goals, nine assists — on the Hylton soccer team that upset defending state champion Woodbridge in the regional semifinals and last fall she emerged as a key contributor on a Bulldogs volleyball team that advanced to the state final four.

“I still like playing soccer and volleyball. I just like playing sports,” she said. “I like being part of a team.”

For someone who is almost always the best player on the field, or court, Byrd is excruciatingly shy of the spotlight. She prefers to blend in.

That’s hard to do when you’re the leading scorer and labled an All-American, but Byrd pulls it off with a playful off-court personality that makes her endearing even to rivals. She grew up playing AAU basketball with Osbourn Park’s Kat Rippe and April Henderson and Diana Martinez from Woodbridge.

She still considers them friends.

“We love playing against each other. Off the court we talk a lot of stuff and it’s a lot of fun,” said Byrd, who averaged 15.9 points per game last season to lead the Cardinal District in scoring. “When you play against your friends you want to win.”

Even Byrd’s summer battles are prolific. As if facing Woodbridge three times during the high school season isn’t enough of a challenge, she helped extend the rivalry into the Metro South campaign.

“In the summer, we’re competitive the same way we are in the season,” she said.

The summer before last, Byrd and the Bulldogs won the Metro South title and then went on to capture the Cardinal District regular season championship for the first time in school history. Last summer, the Vikings snatched the summer league title back — setting up another exciting showdown this winter.

With two starters returning, Hylton should be in contention once again. At least Byrd thinks so.

“We might do some damage,” she said.

With Byrd back for her third varsity season at shooting guard and junior Shareka Purnell taking over for Jennifer Rhodan at point guard, the Bulldogs have one of the area’s most athletic backcourts.

Senior Keisha Hardley, another one of Byrd’s childhood friends and teammates, is also returning at forward, along with Tanisha Brown.

“I think we’re here to stay,” Byrd said. “Finishing where we did last year makes us want to go even farther.

“We’re going to have to work hard and I’m going to have to do more than I did last year as far as being a leader, but I wouldn’t put it all on me,” she said. “I’m not a person to take all the credit. It’s the whole team.”

For Byrd, it’s always about the team. That’s something she learned early on from her father, Gerald Sr., her brother, Gerald Jr., and her uncle Wendall Byrd, who was one of Grant Hill’s coaches at South Lakes High School.

That, as much as talent, has helped Byrd earn a college scholarship and recognition as one of the top girls basketball players in the U.S.

“The whole summer I played against All-Americans,” said Byrd, who was a member of the Boo Williams’ AAU all-star squad that won a state championship and qualified for the junior Olympic and junior national tournaments.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to play with them. It’s exciting when you’re on a good team and you get to play against the best competition. It made me a better player because I wanted to prove that I deserved to be out there on the court.”

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