COVINGTON, Ga. — Lexii Chatman has gotten accustomed to playing along side Jurnee Smith over the last four years at Newton.
So it isn’t surprising to learn that Chatman offered up her best recruiting job to lure Smith to Georgia Southwestern with her as a package deal.
Both Chatman and Smith signed letters of intent to play college basketball Thursday morning during a joint signing ceremony in a packed Newton High media center. Except Chatman had already determined that Southwestern was the place for her. Meanwhile, Smith made a signing day decision to choose Columbus State.
“I thought she was going to do it,” Chatman said, referring to the prospect of Smith choosing Southwestern with her.
If she did, the pair would’ve reunited with Kayla Smith, a Newton grad two years removed who recently signed with the Hurricanes after spending two years at Atlanta Metropolitan.
But Smith decided to choose Columbus State, citing it as a decision that was best for both her and her family.
“I like both schools. Both are great schools,” Smith said. “I love the campus and coaching staff. It’s not like if I went to Georgia Southwestern I’d have been miserable. Nothing like that. But I just had to make the decision that was best for me.”
That doesn’t mean denying herself the opportunity to keep playing with Chatman and reunite with another former Lady Ram was easy.
“It was real hard,” she said. “It’s gonna be very different. I’ve just gotta adjust to not having her around. But at the same time, it may be the best for both of us so that we can get better on our own.”
Ultimately, it was a red letter day for both Newton seniors, and by extension, the entire Lady Rams program, if you ask coach Tiffani Johnson.
“It’s been great,” Johnson said. “The seniors in general, Lex and Jurnee, have been in the spotlight more, and those two have really put the team on their back the last four years and have stepped up and really been at the forefront of the success we’ve had over the last four years.
“I hate to see them leave, but I love to see them go. College is the best time of your life, and I’m happy for them that they get to experience that. I’m almost a bit jealous because I miss it and wish I could go back.”
Given that both Georgia Southwestern and Columbus state are NCAA Division II schools that compete in the Peach Belt Conference, Smith and Chatman will have to get used to playing against each other over the next four years — something they haven’t done since middle school when Smith was at Liberty and Chatman at Indian Creek.
Johnson said she’s going to make it a point to be there when the two teams meet on the court next season, with plans to bring next season’s Lady Rams squad to support the soon-to-be Newton grads.
“That’s going to be great to watch them compete against each other like that, and a different phase that we haven’t seen,” Johnson said. “I’m going to try and make sure our seasons don’t collide so we don’t miss that game and take as many down as we can. I’ll clap on both ends no matter what happens. It’ll be a night full of cheering, regardless.”
Thursday was an emotional day of pride for both players as over 100 student-athletes, classmates, family and teachers piled in to the media center to watch the pair make their college choices official.
Jurnee Smith, in particular, had a tear-jerking moment as she attempted to express appreciation to everyone for their support. Once she got to her grandmother, she choked up and tears began to fall. Her grandmother came over and they stood and embraced.
“My grandmother is everything,” Smith said, voice quivering again. “That’s just my everything. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Meanwhile, Chatman got to relish in the glory of being announced as the school’s second all-time leading scorer, finishing with 1,834 career points which was good enough to push her coach down to third all time.
It was a bit of fulfilled prophecy for Chatman who told Johnson as a freshman that she would pass her on the scoring chart.
“She told me from the beginning that she was going to do it,” Johnson said. “She’s behind Lakia Stokes who’s first. Then her. Then me. So she’s in the history books, and since it’s one of my players who broke my record, I can live with that.”
“I was very excited when I found out that I did it, because that was one of my goals that I wanted to accomplish, and I did,” Chatman added.
Both Chatman and Smith said they’re excited to begin living life as college student-athletes. Chatman will major in business management at Georgia Southwestern, while Smith will study biology.
“I want to become a veterinarian,” Smith said. “I just love animals. I have four dogs, all (pit bulls) and it just made me want to have a career to care for animals.”
Both players said they’ll look back on their time at Newton fondly, and be grateful for how they played a part in pushing the Lady Rams to a region championship and a Class AAAAAAA runner-up finish during the 2017-18 season.
“I’m very proud of what me and Lex were able to do here today,” Smith said. “We’ve come a long, long way. When we first came here, we both said that we would sign at some college, and now we did.”