By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer

During her four-year varsity career in three sports, Absegami’s Jayla McNamara was never named All-South Jersey. Never was she named a newspaper’s Player of the Year, nor did she have a big feature article written up about her career.
But ask any high school coach — in any sport — and they tell you that if you give them a team full of Jayla McNamaras, they’ll find a way to win a bunch of ball games.
A gymnast by trade, McNamara had relatively little experience in soccer, basketball or lacrosse before entering Absegami, and just wanted to play sports to stay in shape and have some fun. But she’s also never shied away from a challenge. Her father knows that first hand. He once told a story to a pint-sized Jayla about a friend of his who never missed a day of school in his life. Jayla, a first-grader at the time, said she could reach the same goal — and 12 years later, she still hasn’t missed a day.
“The only day I technically missed — which was excused — was for my interview for the Coast Guard Academy, but I still showed up to my classes by logging in online,” said McNamara, Glory Days Magazine’s 2021 Girls Sports Scholar Athlete of the Year. “My father told me a story when I was in first grade about a friend of his who never missed a day of school, and I told him I would do that. He told me, ‘Jayla, it’s OK, you don’t have to do that.’ And that made me mad — I don’t know why, but I just wanted to prove him wrong. And I did it. I don’t know how, but I did it.”
“She was into everything. The thing I’m most impressed with is the kid never missed a day of school, from kindergarten through high school. I mean, her accomplishments speak for themselves. She’s a great kid,” said Absegami girls basketball coach Bobby Lasko.
McNamara currently is at Marion Military Institute in Marion, Alabama, a proving ground for cadets who want to earn entry into one of the service academies, or pursue military or civilian careers through the four-year college route. McNamara is intent on earning her way into the United State Coast Guard Academy after a 10-month stint in Alabama.
“I’m in the Coast Guard Academy Scholars Program, and what that means is I applied to the Coast Guard Academy and they appointed me with their Scholars Program, which is basically a prep school year, so I’ll be at this school for about 10 months. They sent me here to better myself before I get to the academy,” she said. “They liked most of the qualities I had — maybe they thought I needed a little more work in a specific subject. It’s an amazing option. I went through a basic training period in the summer and after the swearing in ceremony I’m considered an E-2.
“I kind of knew I wanted to join a service. My mom is from the Philippines and she had a big impact on me. She moved here when she was 27 and didn’t exactly have an easy lifestyle back there. So I’m very thankful for everything that I’ve been provided in this country.”
Even though she didn’t have a ton of experience at the sports she played, she nevertheless made a lasting impression on those programs and work her way into a starting role in all three sports by the time she was an upperclassman.
“I didn’t really play soccer, basketball or lacrosse growing up,” she explained. “I started playing soccer in seventh grade. I was a competitive gymnast from ages 5 to 12 but it just got to be too much on my family to continue that. I knew I was somewhat athletic and I could hold my ground in those other sports. I wasn’t expecting much (in high school), I just wanted to stay in shape and I liked the team atmosphere, and being part of something bigger than myself.”
She took on the challenge of getting better every year at all three sports, and — even more importantly — as she got older she became a very important role model to the younger athletes in all those programs.
“Honestly, that’s one of the best feelings ever. I loved showing the younger girls work ethic and showing them that no matter what your skill level is, if you are willing to work hard you can get something out of the sport,” McNamara said.
“My first year, I didn’t even know who she was. She was on JV and I had to bring a kid up, and she’s out there playing defense against the varsity and yelling at people to get in their spots. I said, ‘I’m going to take her,’ and by the end of the season she was getting about 10 minutes per game on varsity and played in the state tournament. She’s got a big heart,” Lasko said. “The cool thing about her was she didn’t just get it done on the court, she had straight A’s in the classroom, was in study hall helping kids get their grades up — she was doing everything. And there aren’t many kids who average less than 10 points a game who can be a role model for kids in grade school. Hers is a really cool story.”
For all the respect McNamara earned on the court and fields she played on, her prowess in the classroom was unmatched. A 4.0 student, all you have to do is take one look at her resume to realize she was far above the normal high school student. Magna Cum Laude, perfect attendance, accepted into the Coast Guard Academy’s Introduction Mission Program, accepted into the Academy’s Scholars Program — along with acceptance into six other universities; Congress of Future Medical Leaders, Girls State, Distinguished Varsity Scholar, National Honors Society, Spanish Honors Society, Student Body President, Absegami’s Gilda’s Club member, freshman transition leader, school safety program — the list is seemingly endless. Oh, and she just happened to be a team captain for basketball and lacrosse her senior year.
McNamara truly was one of Absegami’s most well-rounded and important students the past four years. It took a lot of doing — she somehow found time to fit in 120-plus volunteer hours and worked two jobs — but she said it was all worth it.
“It’s a matter of wanting to get it done. Time management was very difficult because I was involved with about 20 things at once, but I think that develops character. Being able to talk to different types of people — I was able to work with so many different people, and that was a really good experience,” McNamara said. “I love that school. I would never trade Absegami for anything. The teachers they have are amazing, the programs they have are amazing and they are so involved with the students. Being involved in the homeland security magnet was one of the best things I ever did. It was an amazing experience. Freshman year we got to go to the 9/11 memorial (in New York City). Most freshmen aren’t very mature, but on that day you definitely saw a switch. We became adults that day, and that was a great experience.”
So, what is next for a young woman who has accomplished so much already? To accomplish much more, of course.
“I’m hoping to get appointed (to the Coast Guard Academy) this year, as long as my GPA is above 2.5. I had a 4.0 in high school, but the work load here is definitely intense,” she said. “I hope to major in government and I want to specialize in international affairs. I’ve been looking into flight school, but that’s not something I want to do right out of the academy. I’d also like to go to law school at some point. But international affairs has always been interesting to me, with my mom being from the Philippines, I’ve always wanted to help people better their nations and better themselves.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Glory Days photo/Sully