Forget basketball for a moment, even if Limestone College guard Maurissa Lester would rather not. Not with her senior year melting away and her team’s victories piling up. Not with one goal still on the table for the Saints, who in the last three years have reached the Division II Sweet 16, then the Elite Eight, then the Final Four.
Step back and consider what has made her a good teammate and a better human being. Take in the whole picture, enormous as it is, of the young woman whose understanding of her familial roots in rural Georgia left her wanting to serve, wanting to help. And so it is that she has, making a mission trip last summer to the East African nation of Tanzania and promising herself that in the future she will do more, always more.
Only then can you understand why she is her team’s best supporting actress.
Limestone, 16-0 and ranked fifth in Division II, has an unquestioned star in junior guard Jasmine Kearse, a preseason All-American and the MVP of the NCAA Tournament’s Southeast Regional the past two seasons, in addition to being an All-Conference Carolinas first-teamer in 2014-15.
This year she is averaging 21.4 points, and her 44-point explosion against Lees-McRae on Jan. 5 equaled a school record. Yet the team’s success must be viewed as a collaborative effort. Nine Saints play more than 10 minutes a game. They score 81 points a night, with a high of 101 Tuesday against Southern Wesleyan, and their average margin of victory is over 25 points heading into Friday’s game at Barton. They also visit Mount Olive in a game Saturday on ASN.
They play in a big hurry, because they’re in a rush to get where they want to go.
“For me it’s really great, because that’s the style that I love playing,” said Lester, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.6 points a game. “I like to go fast.”
She never averaged more than eight points a game before this season, and that in a sophomore year cut short by a broken leg. Last year, she said, she came off the bench, “ready to give a spurt of energy,” as did fellow sub Alicia Brookins, who has since graduated.
“For me,” Lester said, “I think the mentality has changed a little bit.”
She has redoubled her efforts, and scored in double figures in all but four games. And if Kearse and junior guard Amaura Brandt have shown themselves to be reliable snipers, Lester is more likely to slash to the rim or get out on the break.
She is going to do whatever she can, in other words. Same as always.
A biology major who minors in chemistry, Lester aspires one day to be a dentist. So it was that when she joined a small group of healthcare professionals on her trip to Tanzania last summer she found herself dispensing toothbrushes and toothpaste to children in inland villages, then teaching them how to use them.
“I wanted to go there to make sure I gave back to the community, but also to see something that’s different from the United States,” she said. “It’s a whole different mindset, a whole different mentality over there in Tanzania, and obviously the resources are different as well.”
To say the least. There were no toilets, just holes in the ground. If you wanted to take a shower, someone would heat up a pail of water and dump it over your head.
And yet, Lester said, “Everybody was really happy, and they would all work together as one big community.”
Which opened her heart that much more. While she plans to attend dental school next year, she is already thinking about returning to Tanzania in 2017, then maybe going to St. Kitts or the Ivory Coast.
Ask her why she is wired the way she is, and she talks about life in Georgia. She grew up in Marietta, in the northwest part of the state near Atlanta. Her dad, Maurice, is a project manager for a construction company, while her mom, Shakenia, is a sales accountant for Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare giant.
Over the years Maurissa has visited her grandparents in the towns of Soperton and Jacksonville, toward Georgia’s southern end. And it has changed her perspective.
“Down there it’s just rural area,” she said. “It’s different, as far as the mentality goes. I think they think you’re basically stuck with the cards that you’re dealt, I guess — if that makes sense — like a lot of gang violence. And the education is a lot different. So I basically just want to help them. Watching them grow up just fueled me to want to do better, for them and for myself.”
So she seeks to do more, always more. And that’s true wherever she finds herself.