AMERICUS -- As a freshman, Jayme Gilbert was a part of the winningest program in Lady Panther basketball history.
Americus-Sumter finished the season 26-3, falling to Westlake in overtime in the second round of the state playoffs. That game proved to be a big motivator for the guard.
Now three seasons and a First Team All-State selection later -- as well as a school record-holder -- Gilbert's dreams of playing college basketball became a reality when she signed her national letter-of-intent with Fort Valley State on Thursday.
"I was anxious and ready," said Gilbert, who is the winningest player in the program since the merger. "It feels good to sign a full scholarship. I'm ready to take my talent to the next level."
Gilbert, a Herald Super 6er, finished her senior season averaging 22.6 points, five steals and four assists a game. She set the school records for points in a game, season and career. She set the school record for points in a game with 43 as a junior against Crisp County before scoring 44 against Terrell County this year, where she posted a triple-double. Gilbert also had eight double-doubles, finished fifth in the state in scoring overall and was selected to play in two all-star games.
Fort Valley coach Lonnie Bartley has won nine regular-season and six tournament championships since 2000, including both this season, and he's excited about bringing Gilbert into the program.
"I like the way she goes north and south, and the way she goes at a high rate of speed," said Bartley, who's been at Fort Valley for 27 years. "She's very intense to the point where it looks like she has a bad attitude. But the looks on her face, in my opinion, is because she likes to win. I've seen her play since 10th grade, and I liked her then. Two years later, I like her even better."
Gilbert played with Abril Peeples (Jacksonville) and Deatric Smith (South Georgia Tech) as a freshman at the shooting guard spot before taking over the point as a sophomore. Lady Panthers coach Evelyn Wright said Gilbert was forced to grow up fast, and she's been a dominating player.
"I think her freshman year, she was very, very timid and very scared," said Wright. "I think with the girls being older, they really nurtured her and brought her along well. After that first year, she stepped up to another level. She had to grow up fast with the shoes she had to fill. (Opponents) had to put two on her to play her, and that only slowed her up. They didn't stop her, but slowed her up to a pace where they could adapt and play us as a team."
At 5-foot-6, Gilbert wondered if her height would be a deterrent.
"There were times I'd go home and cry because I didn't know if I was going to play basketball anymore after high school, but knowing I am, I'm ready," she said. "I just thought I was too short and nobody wanted a girl to play on their team. I'm glad coach Bartley took a chance with me."
Wright, an Albany State alum, joked at the signing, saying she will wear her alumni's colors, but bring a Fort Valley towel to the game when the two teams play.
"That's my alma mater, and it will be good when they play each other," she said. "It's a fun thing. She's like a daughter to me, so I don't care where she goes, she will still have my support 100 percent."
Gilbert knows the hard work from here is just the beginning. She will have competition from another freshman All-State guard from Alabama and a senior for playing time.
"I know I'll have to work hard for my spot," she said. "I'm used to already having a spot ready for me. Now I have bigger and better girls coming, too. I'll work harder, but it won't be a problem.
"Out of all my (high school) years, I didn't have a state championship ring. I'm going to work to get a championship ring as I go further."