By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Kailyn Nash learned exactly how important she was to her team last season, during a bitterly disappointing district championship matchup..

Nash, one of Muskegon’s leading scorers at the time, got into foul trouble in the third quarter of a very close game against a good Reeths-Puffer team.

She drew her fourth foul late in the third quarter with the game tied 33-33. On her way back to the bench, she let a curse word fly out due to personal frustration. A referee overheard her and she was given a technical foul, which counted as her fifth infraction, and she was out of the game.

Muskegon’s Kailyn Nash. Photo/Jason Goorman

With Nash out of the lineup, Reeths-Puffer rolled to a 58-48 victory and the title, and the Big Reds were done for the season, with their bid for a third straight district trophy falling short.

The loss was painful for Nash, but she learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

“At that moment I let my teammates down,” Nash said. “It was a devastating way to end my junior season. I felt like we could have won districts. You live and learn. Two days after that, I was right back in the gym.”

Now a senior, Nash has not had any similar problems this year. She is soaring through six games, averaging 25 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks, five assists and four steals per contest. She is also a strong student, maintaining a 3.5 grade point average.

“In my opinion, she’s a 2021 Miss Basketball contender,” said Muskegon Coach Paris Thomas.

Nash will try to keep that type of production going on Tuesday night, when the Big Reds host Reeths-Puffer in their first meeting of the season, and their first meeting since that fateful district final game last year.

Nash has always had great talent, and made the Muskegon varsity as a freshman. She showed signs of the kind of dominant player she would become on several occasions, including a 2018 district quarterfinal game, when she scored 17 points, all in the second half, to lead the Big Reds past Northview.

Rodney Walker, who was Muskegon’s coach at the time, was not surprised that Nash started to break out that early in her career.

“Before the season even started, I said if we were going to win the big game, it was going to be the freshman stepping up,” Walker said after that game. “I knew she was capable of stepping up, and that helps us moving forward.”

Kailyn Nash posts up in the paint for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

The next season, after Coach Walker left Muskegon and took over the girls team at Reeths-Puffer, he was once again reminded of Nash’s potential. She scored 27 points in the Big Reds’ 10-point victory over the Rockets in their first game against their former coach.

Last season, as a junior, Nash started gaining some consistency, averaging 13 points per game and earning All-Conference honors.

While Nash was always good, she also spent her first three years of varsity surrounding by older, talented players, like former Big Red stars Alyza Winston, a 2018 grad, and Deshonna Day, who graduated last spring.

This season, as the only returning full-time starter, Nash is the obvious go-to player on the Big Reds’ roster. After the foul-out experience against R-P in districts last winter, she has learned how much responsibility she carries, and she has embraced that role.

Her importance to the team was highlighted in a game against Holland earlier this season.

Nash started out slow in the contest, missing her first four layup attempts, and the Big Reds trailed after one quarter and led by one at halftime. Then Nash started hitting her buckets and ended up with 27 points as Muskegon pulled away and won, 62-44.

“I think for the most part, my confidence has always been there, but now I know I have to take charge,” said Nash, who learned a lot by being on Muskegon’s state semifinal team in 2018, her freshman season. “The ball has to go through me, and I’ve accepted that role. If it’s not me making the basket, I have to make a good pass. It’s an honor. When I was coming up, that was not my role. I’m just accepting the role I have now. I like it that I’m that player this year.”

Muskegon’s Kailyn Nash splits Holland’s defense during the Big Reds’ win over the Dutch. Photo/Jason Goorman

Coach Thomas has noticed Nash’s new approach this year.

“I think she was the girl on the team last year, she just didn’t realize it,” Thomas said. “She’s so humble, and it took her some time. But now that everybody’s gone, she realizes, hey, these younger kids are looking up to me. She has really honed in on the roll of big sister – but she’s still not mean enough to the younger kids sometimes.”

With such a young roster this season, a lot of people probably consider this a rebuilding year for the Big Red girls. But Nash doesn’t agree. She said there are still a lot of talented, hard-working players on the team, and they just need experience, which they are gaining now.

The Big Reds are 3-3 heading into Tuesday night’s game.

“We are going to come to compete,” Nash said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re going to give them a run for their money. That’s how I feel.”

If Nash’s name sounds familiar to area basketball fans, it’s probably because there have been two of them making big plays on the high school scene in recent years. Kailyn is the younger sister of Muskegon All-Stater Vern Nash III, who graduated last spring and is currently on a basketball scholarship at Saginaw Valley State University.

Their father, Vern Nash Jr., played basketball during his high school days at Muskegon Heights.

Only a year younger than her brother, Kailyn said she was never afraid to go hoop it up with Vern and his buddies when they were little. In more recent years, she said the two of them have gone and worked out together on a pretty regular basis, playing one-on-one or in pickup games with other kids, particulary during the COVID shutdown that delayed the basketball season for so long.

She said Vern always pushed her to improve her skills whenever they played, and she understands and appreciates it now.

“He held me to a higher standard, and it took me a minute to fully understand it,” Nash said. “He’s definitely someone I look up to. In my opinion, he’s one of the best to ever come out of Muskegon. He could have gone Division 1 in college, if it weren’t for his size. He’s a very impactful player, with his grind and work ethic. He’s so locked into the game. I appreciate him for handing that down to me.”

Kailyn Nash waits for the play to develop during Muskegon’s win over Holland. Photo/Jason Goorman

Nash, of course, is planning to play college basketball like her brother. She said she’s had some offers and interest from some smaller schools, but hasn’t made any commitments just yet, because she believes by the end of the season more offers may be coming her way.

“I was leaning toward Central State University, but if I keep playing the way I have been, I think I will have more options,” she said.

Wherever Nash ends up in college, the team will be getting a multi-skilled player, a good student and a good person, according to Thomas.

“She is a well-rounded player,” the coach said. “She can play any position, one through four, and while she is a little bit undersized for the five spot, she can still play it.

“She rebounds strong, she scores around the rim, she can handle the ball, and she can shoot from the outside, too. She can drive the lane, and looks to pass. There is not much this kid cannot do. She’s a great shot-blocker, as well.”