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Love of the game — Jackson found her niche in hoops and excels

All three of Jill Jackson's daughters were talented tennis players, but years ago their coach once singled out the youngest one as something special.

"This one is going to be the best," she said of Jenteal Jackson's tennis potential. "But she just didn't have the love for it."

What that little girl had a love for instead was basketball. Her mother, however, wasn't thrilled about her daughter's desire to hit the hardwood.

"I had them all in dance and Jenteal just hated it," said Jill Jackson. "I remember saying to her, 'You're not going to grow up and play basketball.' And it's exactly what she grew up to do."

The senior at Skyline High School didn't just grow up to play basketball — Jenteal Jackson proved to be something special in a sport where the competition can be tough for a 5-foot-6 guard. Jackson not only mastered her own play, averaging 15.4 points, 5.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game en route to earning a 5A state title, she became something of a teacher, leader and orchestrator of one of the most dominant high school careers in recent history.

The future BYU Cougar amassed 85 wins and just 11 losses as a four-year starter for the Eagles. For her talent, athleticism, leadership ability and intelligence, she earns the 2008 Deseret Morning News Ms. Basketball Award.

Interestingly, her career is one that might not have happened if her mother had succeeded in steering her into tennis or dance as she intended to do. But driven and focused even at a young age, Jenteal Jackson convinced her mom that her personality was better suited to karate, then soccer and finally basketball. Her mother's final compromise was allowing her daughter to play basketball and golf with boys, as long as she kept her waist-length blond hair.

"If you're going to play like a boy, you're going to look like a girl," Jill said. "I would never let her cut her hair. ... She was happy; the more sports she could play, the better."

Skyline basketball coach Deb Bennett has to be relieved that Jenteal's mother eventually warmed up to the idea of Jenteal playing hoops because, without Jackson, the Eagles wouldn't have won two of the last three 5A state titles.

Bennett said it isn't just her ability on the court that makes her so valuable to the Eagles' program.

"She is in it for the team, and she builds her teammates and thanks her coaches," said Bennett. "She thinks about the game, she watches film, she strategizes and she practices to improve her-

self. She is motivated and determined. She embodies, 'If it is to be, it is up to me.' She is toughest when the challenge is the greatest."

Jackson has the unique gift to elevate the play of those around her, and it has enabled the Eagles to win consistently for the last four years. The team's worst finish was a final four appearance her freshman year, and as a sophomore, she led her much older teammates to title with both statistical and emotional leadership.

And at no time in her high school career was the challenge greater than this season.

"We had a very young guard line this year," said Bennett. "Jenteal has nurtured and supported them and believed in them until they could believe in themselves. She has never yelled at anyone, demeaned them, looked disgusted or rolled her eyes. She's never blamed them."

Instead, she's befriended, taught and loved them. Both she and senior teammate Dani Peterson, who will be her teammate at BYU next season as well, found a way to help their teammates find the confidence in themselves to make another championship run.

"Her high school performance speaks for itself," said Bennett. "Not necessarily in personal gain, but in leading her team (four different ones) to an 85-11 record."

That includes four 20-win seasons, two state championships, three state finals appearances and three region championships.

"She may not be the fastest, jump the highest or score the most points, but she is the best player," Bennett said. "She is a complete player. She has the heart of a champion and she not only knows how to win, but she knows how to motivate and inspire her team. She is very mentally tough and she lives her life from a place of integrity."

Jill Jackson said cheering on her daughter has become a source of fun and pride for their entire family — especially Jenteal's grandparents. She said her daughter's work ethic helped her convert talent into success.

"She's very humble and she never relied on just her athletic ability," Jill said. "She has always worked really hard, even when she's the best player. She is very humble, but very confident. She watches film, studies and practices. She earns it."


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com