- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) - One night in 2002, Clarkdale head coach Jeff Davis found himself searching for a place to unwind after coaching his girls’ team’s game against Alabama’s Fruitdale High School.

Davis retreated to a secluded area of the gym to collect his thoughts. However, an unexpected visitor became fixated on him and wouldn’t let the Clarkdale coach out of her sight.

“I’m sitting there all by myself, and all of our people are on the other side of the gym, and this little bitty kid comes over and is playing right down the bench from me,” Davis recalled. “I was eating some Sweet Tarts, and I kept noticing this little kid who would play and then look at me and would keep coming closer. She finally got right up to me and stopped. I looked to her and said, ‘Do you want some candy?’ Her eyes got big and this big smile came on her face, and she nodded her head and said, ‘Yes.’ I gave her a few Sweet Tarts and she moseyed on off.”

Unbeknownst to Davis at the time was that the toddler, Tori Emerson, was the sister of one of his players, Duanika Emerson.

“That was my very first memory of (Tori),” Davis said.

Tori Emerson is now 17-years-old and a senior point guard for Davis‘ 2016-17 Clarkdale (10-6) girls’ squad. The two shared a hearty laugh about the memory, and Tori Emerson cupped one hand over her mouth when Davis playfully teased her about her being in diapers at the time.

Tori Emerson is the fourth of five immediate family members to play basketball for Clarkdale, and countless aunts and cousins have also donned a Bulldogs basketball uniform. She’s currently also the last to carry the family’s athletic torch.

“It’s a good feeling to know that I’m the last one,” Tori Emerson said. “It’s special, but it also makes me sad because I love playing basketball and I don’t want to stop playing. But knowing that I come from all of them, and seeing them in the crowds cheering me on encourages me to play harder.”

On any given game day, the Emerson cheering section can be seen and heard screaming at the top of their lungs for Tori Emerson and her teammates. One of her biggest cheerleaders is her sister, Daneisha, who was a member of the 2011-12 team that rattled off a 23-6 record and reached the South State semifinals. Although Daneisha Emerson graduated from Clarkdale in 2013, maroon-and-white blood still courses through her veins. She now imparts her wisdom to her younger sister.

“It starts at the house,” Daneisha Emerson, 22, said. “We try to tell her that she needs to get out there and practice so that she can do certain things during the games. And when we’re in the stands, we give her motivation and tell her to keep it going.”

At 11 points per game, Tori Emerson leads the Bulldogs in scoring this season. She also leads in assists, 3-pointers made and free-throws made. She ranks second on the team in rebounds. She said her personal accomplishments this season are the result of an unequivocal bond the team shares.

“Coach Davis always mentions (to us) how different teams don’t get along and all of that, but we’re all together and are very close,” she said. “We’re kind of like family out there, and we support each other.”

As products of a tight-knit family, Davis said the sisters brought another element of the game to the court at every practice and game.

“They’re very coachable,” he said. “You can tell they’re used to hearing from mamma, hearing from aunties and hearing from daddy, because there was no stubbornness or disrespect. I would tell them what I wanted them to do, or what we were trying to do, and they did everything they could to do it.”

Daneisha Emerson followed Davis‘ praise with a quick remark.

“Yeah, because we knew what it was going to be when we got to the house,” she said with a laugh.

Five of Tori and Daneisha Emerson’s family members were part of the 1981 Clarkdale team that finished the year as state runners-up. Three of those players still attend Tori’s games. She said the added pressure drives her to perform at a higher level.

“I have family that comes to watch me, and I feel that I have a responsibility to try my hardest and best for my team and my family,” she said. “I know they’re watching me, and they know I’m graduating. They tell me that since it’s my last year, I should go out and make it my best.”

After being hired by Clarkdale 18 seasons ago, Davis has coached his fair share of Emersons. He said the family’s mark on the school will last long after Tori Emerson graduates this spring. Her first cousin, Ken Scott, is a member of Clarkdale’s boys’ basketball and baseball teams.

“To me, they’re the salt of the campus,” he said. “The Bible talks about salt - they’ve been active, they participate in things, they’re good students and citizens. Tori is hilarious; I stay laughing at her all the time. Salt gives us flavor and salt preserves. And they’ve helped preserve the basketball tradition, and things at school. They’re a special group of people - a special family.”

Tori and Daneisha Emerson are the daughters of Duane Emerson and Katrina Henderson.

___

Information from: The Meridian Star, http://www.meridianstar.com

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