St. Mary’s pays tribute to Lady Tiger basketball great Kristi Mathis Stephens

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

A poignant ceremony Tuesday night honored the life of Kristi Mathis Stephens and her impact on St. Mary’s High School, and especially its girls’ basketball program.

Stephens died in an automobile accident last fall. She was one of the most accomplished girls basketball players and athletes in school history from 1998-2002, and returned to serve her alma mater as an assistant varsity coach and head junior high coach from 2013-15. Her father Tommy is also a legendary figure in St. Mary’s history and was among the family members participating in the recognition between the girls and boys basketball games at the school.

As a player, Stephens led the Lady Tigers to district championships in all four seasons. She was first-team all-district three times, the district MVP twice (2001, 2002) and a two-time first-team Class A All-State selection. She was nominated for the McDonald’s High School All-America Team.

After scoring more than 2,500 career points, she received a scholarship to play for coach James Smith and the powerful Northwestern State Lady Demons, but she decided to end her playing career with high school. Her final award was being selected Most Athletic in her senior class.

Stephens also was a four-year track and field athlete and played softball as a sophomore and junior. She was a member of the Tigerline as a freshman and was a varsity cheerleader in her sophomore year.

She was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Future Business Leaders of Louisiana.

She returned to assist her coach, Johnny Cox, and Rachel Cunningham, with the varsity girls team in 2013.

With a group of former teammates, coaches, and family members including her father, her husband and her children at midcourt with a framed replica of her No. 4 basketball jersey, Cox spoke powerfully about Stephens as a competitor.

“Although she was one of the better players we’ve ever had here, she didn’t let it be about herself,” said Cox. “That’s why I wanted her teammates to be here with her family tonight. Yes, she was All-State and all that, but Kristi was about team. She had fun with her teammates, she won with her teammates, and we cried together when we lost.

“She was the ultimate teammate. She could score five points and if we won, she was happy. She could score 40 if we needed her to do that to win. She brought this program to another level of good. In her four years of playing, we played the best competition we could find, and we were really good every year, and because of her leadership, even a couple of years after she graduated,” he said.

His first impression came before she stepped on the court in a varsity game. She practiced and dressed out with the varsity as a seventh grader, but Cox chose not to play her until her freshman year. Ending her seventh-grade season, a developing SMHS team made the playoffs but suffered an 80-30 playoff loss on the road to a state champion Arcadia team. Afterwards, as the team prepared to travel home, Stephens approached a somber Cox sitting in a chair and asked if he was OK.

“She goes, ‘I want to come back here and beat these people.’ This is a seventh-grader. Two years later, she’s a freshman, we’re back there in the second round of the playoffs, and we’re down 12 points going to the fourth quarter to the No. 1 team in the state. Kristi scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, and we won the game by five.”

Cox paid tribute to her coaching skill and inspiration. When he returned after a seven-year hiatus to coach SMHS, the Lady Tigers were coming off a 3-27 season, with an 0-10 district record, and lost two top players to graduation. When summer workouts began, Cox asked Stephens what she thought the team could do in the upcoming season.

“Coach, let’s get after it. These girls can win just like we did,” he recalled.

“That year, we won 17 games, and went from being 0-10 to 10-0 in district,” he told the crowd, drawing another round of applause.

With that, Cox presented the No. 4 jersey to her family.

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