Photos by Andy Calvert

People don’t often begin glowing descriptions of amazing basketball players talking about their smile. But for Model senior Victaria Saxton, that beaming smile speaks volumes not only for her love of the game but for the person she is on and off the court.

She holds the Model records for most points, most rebounds and most blocked shots in a career. She also sits on the top 10 all-time list in steals. And opponents and opposing fans see a dominating, tall, athletic terror capable of destroying their team in a myriad of ways.

But the story of one of the best players in the nation and in Model High history doesn’t even begin on the court she dominates.

From an early age, expectations existed for Victaria, or “V” as she is known to almost everyone.

It’s not easy growing up being the daughter of two Roman basketball legends. Victarias’ mom, Consuelo “Nae Nae” Saxton, starred at West Rome High School, helping push, pull and cajole the Lady Chieftains to the state finals her senior year. Her dad, Victor Saxton, dominated the inside paint for an East Rome High School team that routinely dominated opponents and won the 1988 state title. Both went on to play collegiately and both got a shock when the tall, gangly kid who looked like she should be on a basketball court shied away from it.

“She started out as a cheerleader. I was OK with it at first as long as she was happy,” Victor says with his rich deep baritone voice and a laugh reminiscent of the smile V flashes. “The more she kept growing, the more I kept thinking she should play basketball.”

The thought didn’t escape her mom’s attention either.

“I just could not believe she didn’t like basketball when she was younger,” she says. “My oldest daughter was the same way though. She didn’t really start liking it till later.”

And as far as V was concerned, she wasn’t going to play basketball.

"I like it, because I got the chance to pass everyone on the team the ball. But I also got comfortable scoring. I just started relaxing and enjoying it.”

“When I was younger, I always told my mom and my dad that I didn’t want to play basketball,” she says. “My mom kept on saying to just try it.”

The trial came when she was about eight-years-old and for V it was anything but love at first dribble.

“I finally tried it and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t shoot the ball, and I couldn’t dribble the ball,” she says.

V’s frustration showed but her mom had a few plans.

“I started trying to make basketball more fun and had to be creative. She kept analyzing everything too much, asking why we had to shoot the ball into the basket and why we were dribbling it,” Nae Nae says. “I worked with her and just focused on making everything fun, and it started clicking.”

While her basketball skills began to take shape, V faced a huge obstacle. As a first grader, she had to be hospitalized with a bad case of asthma. The attack was so severe it could have cost her her life. Over the next several years and even to this day, she has to be careful and manage her asthma.

“Every November for 11 years she was hospitalized right around her birthday because of asthma. We really didn’t think she would be able to go far in sports because of the asthma,” Nae Nae says. “But she has learned to control it, and she is doing wonderful now.”

Asthma presented an obstacle for V but at the same time she began improving at basketball and beginning to truly enjoy the game.

“In 10-and-under basketball, I told her she was going to have to learn to dribble, because she was going to be the point guard. She picked it up instantly,” Nae Nae says. “Everything I told her to do she was doing, so I realized right then that she was going to be coachable.”

As she got older and grew the stories began to circulate. And one day Model High basketball coach Sally Echols met her future super star.

“Andy Akin was teaching at Johnson Elementary School and I went there to promote our Big Blue Basketball Camp, and he introduced me to her. She had to be in the third grade,” Echols says. “Of course I coached her older sister and I would talk to her then and she always told me she wasn’t going to play basketball. That’s something I remind her of a lot.”

While she downplayed the chance of playing basketball when she was younger, by the time she reached U-10, V’s talent and mindset were growing.

“I was really starting to get it. I became the point guard in fifth grade. I was the tallest one on the court, so it was crazy,” V says. “I liked it, because I got the chance to pass everyone on the team the ball. But I also got comfortable scoring. I just started relaxing and started enjoying it.”

Model Middle School coach Jody Quarles had seen and heard about V before she joined his squad as a sixth grader.

“When I first saw her, she was like all bones and long arms and lanky,” he says. “She is probably the most fun-loving kid I’ve ever coached. That was even before I had seen her play.”

V joined an already strong Model Middle program and began playing right away as a sixth grader.

“Watching her play, you just knew she would be something special,” Quarles says. “She has a great attitude and work ethic and obviously a lot of God-given athletic ability.”

In middle school, V realized she had to face down another obstacle.

“I was so shy and I didn’t really like having to do things in front of a lot of people. I used to tell myself when I was little that I was never going to be able to go on a court in front of lot of people,” she says. “I had to get over that fear. The first time I started in middle school, I was sacred, but I just went out there and had fun. I got over the nerves fast.”

Model lost only one game in V’s sixth grade season before going on to win back-to-back middle school titles her seventh and eighth grade years.

“I knew she was going to be great. The sky is the limit for her even now and we saw glimpses of it even then,” Quarles says.

During his seventh grade year V grabbed a tennis ball and dunked it, causing Quarles and some other onlookers to double take.

And as often happens with great athletes, coaches and others can point to moments and instances where the athletes managed to do something or rise to the occasion.

“I think the eight grade championship game was one of the most dominating performances I have ever seen in a Middle School game,” Quarles says. “The chemistry that V had with other players like Libbey (Upton) and Moe (Welch) was amazing. And it wasn’t just about her, she wanted to get everybody else involved and made it a lot more fun because she did that.”

NaeNae remembers a game against Coosa Middle.

“In the eighth grade, they were playing against Coosa. She went up above the rim got the rebound came down and then went back up with her left hand and it was above the rim too,” she says. “My brother was there sitting across the floor, because his daughter played for Coosa. He just looked at me and shook his head. We still talk about that to this day.”

No one doubted V could make an impact on the high school level. In her first high school game against Sonoraville team that would eventually reach the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs, V recorded her first double-double of her career, scoring double digits in point and grabbing double digits in rebounds, something that would become common place in every game V played.

At halftime of that game with Model sitting at a double-digit lead and V already with her first high school double-double, Akin, who coached some of the greatest Model teams of all time, walked to the scorers table and shook his head.

“That one is going to be special.”

Model reached the finals of the Holiday Festival Basketball Tournament V’s freshmen year before falling to Region 7-AA foe Darlington. Two weeks later, Darlington visited Model and the area got a glimpse of what was in store for the next four years.

“When I think about my freshman year, I think the game where we played Darlington here was probably my favorite game. I played the whole game and my asthma held up,” V says. “It felt good to beat them because we felt like we got back what we wanted.”

Model and V didn’t just beat the Tigers, they dominated them. V recorded double digits in points and rebounds and added 12 blocks as well for a triple-double, propelling Model to the win. That win moved Model to the top of the Region 7-AA standings, and the Blue Devils haven’t left the spot since. Model has compiled a perfect Region 7-AA record during V’s four years.

But as dominant as Saxton proved to be on the hardwood, she always wanted to ensure her teammates were as big a part of the game.

“She is very unselfish. She wants to distribute the ball and help get her teammates involved,” Echols says. “She has helped carry the team for the last four years, but she does it in a humble way. It’s not about her.”

V has the ability to score more points and grab more rebounds in the games, but chooses instead to pass the ball and to make sure other teammates get touches and opportunities.

“I like to share, and I want to get everyone involved. I know I can score but it’s not going to be fun for everyone else if I’m the only one scoring,” she says. “I think it’s important for me to make good passes and to make sure the rest of the team gets involved too.”

“She has helped carry her teams for four years. But she does it in a way that is humble and with the right leadership and the right attitude,” Echols says.

And it’s fun to watch the interaction between coach and player. Before, during and after games, V and Echols talk. Sometimes it’s about a coaching point, sometimes it’s something else but each time a smile erupts on both of their faces.

“She’s always saying something to me positive about the game,” V says. “Sometimes it’s something motivational other times she just tells me to have fun. Coach Echols is my coach but she’s also a good friend. I can talk to her about anything.”

And the results speak for themselves. The Blue Devils reached at least the second round of the playoffs the past four years, with Model bowing out in the state semifinals the past two years. As good as Model was a few other Class AA teams happened to be stacked as well, keeping V and her teammates from reaching the state finals.

But she has proved many times that she has the ability dominate a take over a game, and the opening round of the state playoffs this season offered her the perfect opportunity. Putnam County, which had been ranked as high as No. 5 in the state before losing an early game in its region tournament, visited the Blue Devils to open the 7-AA playoffs.

While Model jumped out to an early lead, a severe cramp in her leg caused V to leave and Putnam County rallied cutting into the deficit and threatening to oust Model from the playoffs.

“You ask about a great game and I have to tell you V’s game against Putnamn County was amazing. She had ot sit out most of the third quarter because of a cramp, but she still scored 38 points and had 17 rebounds,” Echols says. “Her dominance in that game was fun to watch.”

“My leg hurt, but I knew I couldn’t stay out, because my team needed me. I was upset but I kept telling myself to calm down and I could get through it,” V says. “I got my leg to stop cramping and I asked Coach Echols to put me back in. I wasn’t going to let my team lose.”

The game even earned some praise from her dad, who isn’t the quickest to offer it.

“People ask me what I think about how good a players she is. They think I’m crazy because I say that I’ve seen glimpses of greatness from her, but I know there is a lot more to come,” he says with a laugh. “That game against Putnam County she came out aggressive form beginning to the end. I thought that was a pretty good game for her.”

A week and half before Laney rallied to down the Blue Devils in the second half of their Class AA semifinal game, V reflected on her high school career.

“I’ll be sad when it’s over. It’s been so much fun and I couldn’t ask to play in front of a better crow than what we have here at Model,” she says. “But I know what is coming for me and I’m really excited about it.”

And the future looks bright for V. She signed with South Carolina in the fall and will play for coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks next year. Almost every Division I school in the nation recruited her, but South Carolina stood.

“Coach Staley is a great person. She has a great sense of humor and with everything she has done in her career it’s amazing,” V says. “And knowing that she has gotten a lot of other girls to the next level, I knew she can help me get there.”

When asked about the road her daughter has traveled from being the girl who said she would never play basketball to the rising star she is today, Nae Nae leans back in her chair and laughs.

“It’s been so much fun watching this journey, because V makes it fun. She is always smiling and just about never gets mad,” she says. “I love to see that big smile on her face when she runs up and down the court. I know Coach Dawn and her are going to get along great.”

And the crowd of parents and supporters who have been easy to spot in the stands the last four years wearing their Queen V t-shirts will be in tow even if the drive to Columbia is a bit further than the drive to Model.

And in typical V fashion, when the final question comes asking her to reflect on her journey so far, she flashes a big smile, pauses, thinks and laughs a bit.

“I never thought I would be the Victaria I am today. I look at my mom and dad and everyone and it makes me smile,” she says. “It makes my heart smile when everyone is happy. I hate for people to be down. I want everyone in the stands to be happy. It’s just so cool to be able to see everyone at the game having fun and being happy.”

It’s possible to measure V’s impact with the wins, the points, the rebounds, the blocks, the double-doubles, the triple-doubles and the did-you-just-see-that moments.

But perhaps the best way to measure her impact is to look at the smile; not only hers but her coaches, her parents, her teammates and the fans. Because when V flashes that 2000-megawatt smile, it’s almost impossible not to smile along with her.

An injury while running at Auburn ended Jim Alred’s long-shot hopes of possibly competing in the Olympics, so he turned to writing and has been crafting award-winning stories across multiple mediums ever since. Along the way he’s been chased by a grizzly bear, worked as Goofy at Walt Disney World, been nominated for two Emmys, interviewed celebrities like Tiger Woods, Bo Jackson, Bill Clinton, coaches his daughters in cross country and soccer and can often be found running with his wife, Tara, around Rome.