Berry High girls basketball coach Robert Hollis thinks the best thing about senior guard Essence Baucom is how hard she competes.
Hollis remembers that when Baucom was a freshman, three years before she'd become one of the state's best players and signed with Alabama-Birmingham, she was the girl who tried to beat the upperclassmen in every drill.
"She always wanted to finish first," Hollis said Friday, when Berry beat Harding 52-45 to win the ME-GA 7 regular-season championship. "She had to make sure she showed she was the best. The way she works has sort of rubbed off on our team over the years."
This season, Baucom has led Berry (21-2) to the best season in school history, averaging 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals as a 5-foot-5 point guard. She had 11 points and six assists in Friday's championship game.
Baucom is quick and strong and able to finish near the basket, often with a wicked crossover dribble that I've seen cause a few opponents to stumble. She's also 3.8 student who dreams of being a physical therapist or a psychiatrist.
"She's the engine that makes the whole thing go," Hollis said. "People like to say 'little engine,' but I say 'big engine' because she has such a big heart. She'll do whatever it takes to win."
Off the court, Baucom admits to a love of shopping. She has more than 40 pairs of sneakers, favoring bright and bold colors like the black and lime green Kobe Bryants she wore Friday, replete with red shoe strings.
"The shoes always have to match the outfit," she said.
Baucom also likes gospel music from artists like Kirk Franklin - and working with kids.
Last year, she approached the staff at the Stratford-Richardson YMCA on West Boulevard about volunteering with the after-school program. The kids in the program ranged from 5 to 11. Baucom took to the kids and they took to her, asking about her basketball and her future.
"It was overwhelming at first," she said. "Growing up, when I played basketball, I didn't think it would elevate me into a role model for younger kids. It's amazing. I see it as a blessing."
Baucom has done such a good job with the kids that she's been hired. It's hard for her to get over to the YMCA much because her team is practicing and playing, but she admits to sneaking over after an early practice or during a break to check on the kids.
She laughs as she tells this story, and then talks about how her father, Michael, once played for old Bowman High School (now Anson Senior) and how, when she was 5, her dad put a basketball goal in the yard.
He shot. She shot.
Pretty soon, Essence was playing Park & Rec ball with boys.
"At first," she said, "I didn't think I'd be any good. I shot in the wrong basket once, but after my second or third year, my team made it to the championship. I'm like, 'Hey, this is pretty fun.' "