The Red Hawks entered the 2015-16 season fresh off a Final Four run, but they no longer had their best two players. Janitza Aquino and Melissa Tobie averaged nearly half the team’s points last season and their absence left a sizable hole on the basketball court and in the locker room. Kayla Ceballos ― who never started a game her junior year ― was left to fill the void.
Ceballos entered her senior season as the team’s premier offensive weapon. She drained five three-pointers and shot better than 50 percent from the floor in the Montclair State’s opening game, proving that she was up to the task. Ceballos continued to burden the offensive load, as she was the team’s leading scorer through its first nine games.
The Red Hawks traveled to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout and were set to play two nationally ranked teams, Lebanon Valley College and Rochester University. Montclair State played a tight first quarter and the second quarter began, as it always does. Ceballos went up for an offensive rebound. On her way down, she collided with a player from Lebanon Valley College.
“My leg just stood in place but my knee buckled. I heard the crack and the pop,” Ceballos said. “Right there, I knew. I’ve never had an injury this severe, so I knew something was wrong. It was the worst feeling.”
Ceballos suffered a season-ending ACL injury. One moment, she was the team’s number one option on offense and then, seconds later, she was faced with the reality that she might not play another game in a Red Hawks’ uniform.
“I was sitting down on the bus talking to [Ceballos] and she had tears running down her face and she said ‘Don’t worry. I’m still going to be a leader. I’m not going to let the team down. We can still win this. I’m going to do everything that I promised,’” Head Coach Karin Harvey said. “This is an hour after she knows her season is over and she’s already thinking about the team.”
Four years ago, Ceballos wasn’t necessarily the player one would expect to take control of the team as a senior. She went to Christ the King High School ― a high school basketball behemoth that has seen WNBA legends Sue Bird and Tina Charles walk through its doors ― but she never saw the court. Ceballos had the talent, but was hidden at the end of the bench.
“My senior year in high school, I actually quit the basketball team for about two weeks. I didn’t play in high school at all,” Ceballos said. “Then, I realized it just didn’t feel right. I felt emptiness. So I begged my coach to let me back on the team and he did.”
Ceballos didn’t go through the typical recruiting process of a talented high school athlete because she didn’t necessarily have the exposure. Instead, Ceballos displayed her skills at an individual showcase hosted by Fairleigh Dickinson University ― where Red Hawks’ Associate Head Coach Courtney Cunningham spotted her for the first time.
“She’s come such a long way,” Cunningham said. “Her offensive skills continue to get better every year, but she really came a long way in her defensive ability and her leadership. I think that’s where we’ve seen the most growth over that four-year period.”
A quick glance at Ceballos’ statistics reveals a player that steadily improved year-to-year, and showed an even bigger improvement from the beginning to the end of her career. She averaged 7.6 minutes and 1.5 points per game her freshman year and improved to 24.4 minutes and 13.5 points per game her senior year.
However, Ceballos’ development into a leader is perhaps more surprising. She explained that her confidence was taken away from her in high school. Ceballos said during her first two years on the team, she would dominate in practices, but then would shy away in games.
Now, four years later, she’s a fearless scorer and embraced the role of a leader. She can no longer help the team physically because of her ACL injury, but she remains an active leader. It’s not uncommon to see Ceballos coaching a teammate on the bench ― whether it’s offering words of encouragement or telling a teammate that they should go straight up with the ball, rather than hesitating.
“[Ceballos] comes to practice. She motivates everybody. When she comes into the gym, all [her teammates’] faces light up,” Tobie, who played with Ceballos for three years and now coaches the team, said. Tobie went on to describe Ceballos beyond the basketball court. “She’s honestly one of the nicest and most genuine people that I’ve ever met. Her heart is so pure and she’s so sweet. She’s like, you want to pinch her cheeks, almost.”
Ceballos traces her passion for basketball back to middle school and she described herself as a tomboy growing up. Also a gamer, she said, “I used to have a PS3 and I’d spend hours on it. I played Grand Theft Auto ―when my mom let me.”
Now, Ceballos’ four-year career at Montclair State is coming to a close. Ceballos, not able to make physical contributions to the team during its most important stretch, is still keeping a positive attitude.
“I don’t regret anything. Everything happens for a reason,” Ceballos said. “I would advise every athlete to not take anything for granted and play every game like it’s literally their last game. That’s how I played my senior year. I played every game like it was my last game and I enjoyed every second of it.”