The Grind: Sumter's Spann honors mother's memory with success in both basketball, track


Sumter High School's Alicia Spann was born to play basketball. Born to a pair of tall parents, she was always blessed with height. Throw in a dad who played college baseball and basketball, and you've got a future athlete from Day 1.

"I think it came from me being tall," said Spann, who is completing her junior year. "When you get to middle school you can't play sports until you're in seventh or eighth grade, so everyone's like, 'You gonna play sports? You gonna play sports?' I just figured I might as well because I didn't wanna waste my good height for nothing."

That height has taken Spann places she never dreamed. Going into her senior year, Spann is fresh off of winning the state title in the discus in the 5A girls track and field state championship and helped the Sumter girls basketball team earn a spot in the 5A state championship game. While she has already met many of her goals, she had to fight through a lot of adversity to get to that point.

Spann got her athleticism from her dad, John Spann, but she grew up connected to her mom's hip. Leatha Smith was Alicia's biggest supporter, but tragedy struck when the Sumter center was just seven years old. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer of the vulva and passed away on Thanksgiving in 2011. Suddenly, Alicia felt like her corner was empty.

"My mom, that was my backbone," Alicia said. "I was really close with her. I was her only child, so I was really her baby. The cancer came out of nowhere because she was the person of the family that you never expected to get sick, so it was hard.

"When my mom first died, I felt like nobody could give me that same love, so I was really quiet, always to myself, staying in my room all the time."

Family is important to Alicia and she eventually learned how to let her remaining family help her sort through the tragedy. She gives a lot of credit to her aunts, Tretha Smith, Jennell Gunter, Brenda Smith and the late Christine Kelly, along with her grandmother, Mary Smith, for helping her get through the challenging times.

"As time went on, I had to realize that I had all these people around trying to love me and not to put my guard up," Alicia said. "They were there for me. It was hard. It's still hard sometimes to this day, but I just remember to use it as a motivation to make her proud."

John was also there for his daughter. Like the rest of her family, Alicia originally pushed her dad away. As time passed, they grew closer and used basketball as a way to connect. John wasn't always easy on Alicia, but that helped her grow.

"At times, it's tough love really for me, because he would say, 'If you want to do this, you have to be the best, you can't be under anyone, you have to be better than everyone else,' " Alicia said. "He pushed me a lot and I truly thank him for that because if he didn't push me, I wouldn't be where I'm at right now."

As Alicia grew up, she started finding new mother figures. One of them was Karen McFadden, the girls basketball head coach at Bates Middle School. McFadden was Alicia's first official basketball coach and took the young center under her wing. Playing for McFadden, who has been her head coach in track as well, was where she learned she had a knack for the sport and where she found a great support system outside of her family.

"Coach McFadden was a good figure for me. If I didn't have a ride, she would pick me up. She would always give me advice. She always called me 'little girl.' She still calls me that to this day," Alicia said with a laugh. "She was a good mother figure for me. She was always there. She was a great coach and she's always there for me basketball-wise, track-wise or academics. She was always there."

Alicia also found another important relationship on the Bates basketball team. Layken Cox was in eighth grade when Alicia joined the team as a seventh-grader. Cox, who also played center, instantly became a friend that could push Alicia to improve.

"It would be like late after practices, we would scrimmage each other and we would do shot contests, rebounding against each other, boxing out, free throws, little stuff like that," Alicia said of her first year playing with Layken. "At Bates, we used to run suicides a lot, and we were always like, 'I'm gonna beat you.' It was really a competition between me and her, so she kind of helped me on that."

Cox eventually got called up to the Sumter High varsity team, so Alicia was thrust into the starting center role at Bates. She said her eighth-grade season without Layken helped her develop as a player.

"I think it was my eighth-grade year that I started to get out of my shell," Alicia said. "With me being the only tall person on the team (after Cox left) I think I had to step up and realize the role that Coach McFadden wanted me to play. I think it was a good step for me and really helped me realize the opportunity that I had."

Eventually Spann made the jump to varsity basketball at Sumter High, reuniting with Cox. The Lady Gamecocks put together two strong seasons as Alicia started her high school career, but Sumter took a major jump this past season. Sumter came into the season as one of the top-rated teams in 5A and had to live up to expectations despite limited time on the court after an offseason erased by the coronavirus pandemic. The Lady Gamecocks only played a handful of games at the start of the year before their season was put on hold because of the pandemic. Sumter was sidelined for most of the month of December, before losing all of January. Alicia tried to stay positive through it all.

"It put a lot of pressure on all of us and then having that two or three games before getting shut down for COVID, it was stressful," Alicia said. "Me and my teammates didn't like it, but all things happen for a reason. We just knew we had to get back into the gym and get better working on ourselves and as a team so we could make it to state."

After the hiatus, Sumter sprinted through the rest of the abbreviated regular season and thrived in the state playoffs. Alicia, who averaged 5.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest this season, said the Lady Gamecocks were able to find success because they had the right mindset when they were finally able to return to the court.

"I don't wanna say we had a chip on our shoulder, but you had to have one to get through this," Alicia said. "We accomplished so much that no other team in the state did. We got shut down for two weeks, then got shut down again. It was a lot, but we managed and for that I'm so proud of us."

The Lady Gamecocks started their playoff run with a 47-27 win over Berkeley, before cruising past Summersville 50-32. Sumter outlasted Wando in a defensive battle, 34-27, to advance to the state championship game against Clover when another unexpected hiccup arrived. The day before the 5A title game, Clover had a player test positive for COVID-19, which forced the game to be postponed for two weeks.

"It was stressful, but it was fine," Alicia said. "We just took it as motivation for us, because they had to sit out of practice, but we don't; we can practice in the gym every day. (SHS girls head) Coach (Jeff) Schaffer maybe gave us two days off that week, so we weren't really dwelling on it, but we took into consideration what our mission was and what we had to do, but we fell short a little bit."

Sumter came out swinging in the championship game, using dominant defense to control the game for the first three quarters. Alicia thought the Lady Gamecocks took their foot off the gas in the fourth, which opened the door for a Clover comeback. Clover outscored Sumter 17-5 down the stretch, as the Lady Gamecocks lost 40-38 on a last-second basket by 5A player of the year Aleysha Wade.

"The first three quarters, we did a good job, but the fourth quarter, in my opinion, I feel like we eased down because we said we had this in the bag and they were slowing down and they're tired," Alicia said.

The locker room was filled with tears after the game, but Alicia said she wouldn't trade that playoff run for anything.

"It wasn't good, I ain't even gonna lie," she said of the atmosphere in the locker room following the game. "It was not good at all. A lot of crying, a lot of heads down. "(Assistant) Coach (Chris) Vandevander) was telling us to keep our heads up because we made it this far, but tears kept coming down. We were really disappointed. We couldn't believe that game slipped out of our hands by that much.

"It really hurt, but I'd do it all over again."

That loss also provides Sumter with a lot of motivation heading into Alicia's senior season. The Lady Gamecocks will be able to have a proper offseason program this year, so Alicia says there are no excuses.

"It's a lot of pressure for me, but I kind of have to stay focused and remember what I'm doing it for," Alicia said. "This summer we're going to be in the gym. There can't be no excuses; you have to get better in the offseason. Mainly for me it's my footwork, and I'm strong, but I have to get stronger. There's no excuses. You have to have a chip on your shoulder, and you've got to continue to work ,hard no matter what."

Making a championship run with Sumter was also special for Alicia because she was able to do it with family. Alicia is related to freshman point guard Kiara Croskey, as their grandparents are first cousins. Alicia is glad to not just have family in her corner, but on the court with her at Sumter.

"Many people don't know this but she's also my cousin, so being able to play with her is everything in the world," Alicia said. "She's the best point guard in my eyes. She has all those fundamentals you want in a guard. She's coachable, she's really the spark for our team because the point guard leads everything on the team and she gets the job done every time."

While the playoff run came with a lot of laughs and tears, there was also a consequence off the court. Alicia also throws the discus and shot put for Sumter, but she had to wait for basketball season to end before she could join the track team. That meant the 2-week delay led to missed meets.

"When track started, I was still doing basketball, and you can't do both at the same time, so I had to finish basketball out. When I first got to (track) practice, I was late with the track meets, so I had to remember how to throw and get my arm right," Alicia said. "Then I was at (the 5A) qualifiers and all these people were like, 'Who is this girl? Where did she come from?' I just stayed calm with it and stayed humble with it."

Alicia has been throwing since she first started track back at Bates. She tried the long jump in her early days, but that didn't stick. She originally didn't expect to make a career out of throwing, but that changed when she got to high school.

"In middle school I liked it, but I didn't think it would take me this far," Alicia said. "In ninth grade it really sparked in me because I did one throw at practice and I think I threw about 115 (feet) when I was a freshman, but the only bad thing about it was it was a scratch and if it's not in, it doesn't matter.

"That's what really sparked it. I was all about throwing then. Basketball was always there, but throwing had something for me."

Alicia built on that skill set over the next three years and eventually earned a spot at the 5A state meet with her fourth-place finish in the qualifier. Alicia had a piece of good luck when Jalani Adams of Mauldin, who won the qualifier, did compete at state. Alicia still had two other competitors to jump in the standings, but pulled out a massive throw of 118 feet, 6 inches, to claim a state title.

"It was exciting. I felt relieved, I felt accomplished. I was proud of me and I know my mom was proud of me," Alicia said. "My dad was in the stands, he was watching, I had all my coaches and teammates out there. I felt like I accomplished something not only for myself, but for the school."

While Leatha wasn't there in person, Alicia said she knows her mom is always watching over everything she does.

"Every time I threw, I was like, 'Mom, watch over me. I don't want to let you down,' " Alicia said. "I know she was there. It feels good to make her proud. I can't wait to accomplish more."

Alicia does more than just basketball and track at Sumter High. She also participates in the Unified Sports program, which has student-athletes compete alongside special needs student-athletes in different sports against other high schools.

Alicia has no plans of resting on her laurels when it comes to basketball and throwing.

"It makes me realize that I've been through a lot and done what other kids haven't done. Not only am I grateful, but I'm humble for it," Alicia said. "It makes me feel good. It puts me in a position where I can do so much next year. I have a lot in store, I'm ready to use it.

"Basketball-wise, we need to get stronger, work on footwork, get all those things nipped in the bud and be ready to win a state championship. In track, I've got to win another one."

Alicia's other goal for her senior season is to follow in her father's footsteps and become a 2-sport college athlete.

"Recruiting is good right now. I have a school in mind that I want to go to, but we're going to save that for later," Alicia said. "If I have the opportunity, if a school wants me to play basketball and do track, then I'll gladly take that scholarship. It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm all up for it."