Aliyah Gregory has returned to her alma mater, Strawberry Crest High School, as the new head coach of the girls basketball team.
If there’s a Mount Rushmore of Strawberry Crest High School student-athletes out there somewhere, Aliyah Gregory is definitely on it.
Gregory carved out an exceptional career for herself on the basketball court, surpassing the 2,000-point mark and claiming virtually every school record by the end of her senior season. When she was a Charger from the 2010-11 through 2013-14 seasons, Gregory helped the varsity team shake off a winless inaugural season in 2009-10 and become a perennial playoff team by her junior year.
If anyone knows what it takes to build and maintain a successful program, it’s her. And now her alma mater has given her the chance to prove she can succeed not only as a player, but also as a head coach.
Gregory took the reins at Crest this season in an effort to continue what longtime head coach La’Tosha Lewis started shortly before she enrolled at the school as a freshman in 2010. It’s not Gregory’s first time in a coaching role, but it is her first head coaching job — and her first time back at Crest on a regular basis.
“It’s been extremely rewarding,” Gregory said. “Of course, it’s been a little different being in this role. Last time I was at Strawberry Crest, I was in a jersey.”
Lewis knows that the right decision isn’t always the easiest one to make.
Though technically not the first head coach in program history (she took over the position shortly before the program’s first season in 2009), Lewis was its head architect. She built and guided what’s become one of Hillsborough County’s most consistently successful girls basketball programs over the course of 11 seasons and won four district championships. She only needed four seasons to take a team “barely getting the ball across the court” in 2009 and make a district champion. Lewis can also take pride in maintaining an extremely high graduation rate in the program.
“I only wanted to do it for one year and it turned into 11,” Lewis said.
But when COVID-19 began its spread across the United States, Lewis realized she would have to give all of that up.
Lewis knew she needed to take care of her mother, who lives in her home state of Texas, and that meant she had to move back to Houston. She also knew she needed someone to take care of her basketball program. Not just anyone would do — it had to be someone she felt comfortable with, someone whose work ethic and dedication to the program wouldn’t ever be in question.
Luckily, she didn’t have to try too hard to find somebody.
Gregory (and her sister Erin who is also now on the coaching staff) is Lewis’ goddaughter. The two women have been very close for decades and one of the reasons Lewis even began coaching at Strawberry Crest was because the Gregory girls were going to play there.
“I kept in constant contact with her through the whole time I was in college,” Gregory said. “We’ve spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together. She came to my college graduation. When I started as an assistant, I’d call her and bounce ideas off of her… when she decided she was leaving, I was the first person she called.”
Lewis knew Gregory had it in her heart to be head coach of the Chargers, even if she needed “a little convincing” at first.
“I had been trying to get her to come coach with me since she graduated from college,” Lewis said. “When I was leaving I was like, ‘Well, who would be the best fit to fill the role, who knows the game, who can the kids relate to?’ I didn’t want to turn the program over to just anybody. She already had her credentials for P.E., had coaching experience… she’s the best player that’s played there. She holds most every record there that you can name. She’s young, mature, hungry, knows the game… I felt that would be a good person to turn the program over to.”
The transition from Lewis to Gregory was seamless. Lewis made herself available at all times to answer any questions Gregory could think of, to help her settle into her new role and to make sure Gregory would start the 2020-21 season completely prepared to run a program for the first time. And learning that her program is now being led by several of her former players (including assistant Laney Mastrovito) makes her even more proud of what she helped build in Dover.
“Those girls, my former players, they have pride in the program because they put in the work,” Lewis said. “They’re gonna work hard and be hungry just like I was. That program is in my heart forever. It was hard for me to leave, but I wanted somebody in there with the same work ethic and dedication to the program that I had.”
Gregory couldn’t wait to get in the gym with the girls, to start working and actually get to know her squad. When that first day of practice finally came, Gregory went in not quite knowing what to expect and left completely satisfied.
“It was interesting,” she said. “The very first day we practiced — and I met the girls on Zoom over the summer — it was the first time I saw them in person. I hadn’t gotten to know them as people. It was us figuring each other out… but after my first day, I was super excited and ready to get working with the girls. I was super motivated. After seeing one practice and interacting with the girls, I thought ‘We might be alright.’”
Like Lewis before her, Gregory is walking into the job with plenty of work to do.
This team has heart and hustle. Gregory said they’ve already formed a familial bond, a sisterhood, and that everyone on that team is willing to go out there and play hard on any given night. This team is also very young: its oldest player, point guard Kayla Simmons, is the only junior on a roster packed with freshmen and sophomores. But if there’s one thing Gregory learned from her coach that’s defining her own tenure, it’s that hard work eventually pays off if you’re willing to buy in.
“You have to deal with all those ‘young player’ mistakes,” Gregory said. “But I know they’re always gonna go hard and they’re always gonna buy into whatever I’m trying to teach them. They come in and work hard and we get better every day. I’m not a person to say we’re gonna win 80 percent of our games or win every single game we play — I think a lot of the success we have is based on how much we learn and grow. It’s bigger than just wins and losses.”
It’s worth noting that Gregory’s first season did, in fact, start with a win. The Chargers visited King High School on Nov. 17 and picked up a 47-25 win highlighted by a huge 30-point performance by sophomore guard Ki’Ajanae Gordon. Simmons chipped in with 14 points, too.
“It was a rough one, but we were able to pull it out,” Gregory said. “The first game of the season is always the first real test. We learned a lot.”
Crest’s Nov. 19 home opener against Chamberlain ended with a 39-28 loss for Gregory and the Chargers. They’ll be back on their home court at 8 p.m. Dec. 1 to take on the Brandon Eagles.