MTSU senior guard Laken Leonard and sophomore guard Caroline Warden have traveled together to enjoy success at the high school and college level.
Even through there is a two-year difference between the two, the duo has helped continued the Lady Raider tradition of winning championships and playing in the NCAA Tournament.
However, both of their success started at Jackson County High School, which is located about 80 miles northeast of Murfreesboro under longtime head coach Jim Brown.
Since he took over the program back in 1992, the Lady Blue Devils have won seven TSSAA State Basketball titles. Leonard was a part of the 2008 team, and she was the hero in the title game by hitting a game-winning free throw with no time left. Two years later, Leonard and Warden once again led JCHS to another state title.
Brown, who attended the Lady Raiders 65-54 win over Rice on Feb. 8, says both are special players and he is happy with their success on the collegiate level.
“Both of them are extremely competitive,” Brown said. “They show it in different ways. Leonard’s emotions are out there, and you can see it in her facial expressions in every play she makes. Warden is just so steady that when you walk in the gym you would not know if her team was up by 20 points or down by 20. They both definitely hate to lose.”
Both Warden and Leonard are excited about playing on the same team again at MTSU, but each took different paths to Murfreesboro. Growing up, Leonard played on several AAU teams coached by the Insell family, and that is how she caught the eye of current MTSU head coach Rick Insell after being ranked in top 50 by several recruiting services coming out of high school.
“I felt like I could help this program grow and get it where coach Insell wanted it to be,” Leonard said after practice. “We play against the top programs in the nation, and he wanted us to compete against the best.”
As for Warden, she decided to walk on at MTSU her freshman year. She played such a key role last season that toward the end of season Insell rewarded her with a scholarship.
“I just wanted to play in college, and ever since I was a freshman in high school I wanted to come to MTSU,” Warden said. “I decided to walk on and earn my spot. It is good to be a part of winning team that is doing as good as we are right now.”
Currently, the duo has helped the Lady Raiders to a 19-4 overall and 8-1 Conference USA record heading into this week’s action at FAU and FIU.
During the last home victory over Rice on Feb. 8, both players helped lead MTSU to victory. Warden made her first start of the season and had 10 points and five assists, while Leonard was the team’s leading scorer off the bench with 13, including three huge free throws to put the game away late.
The dynamic duo know each other on and off the court and are best friends.
“We already know what each other wants to do,” Warden said. “We just have that chemistry since we have played together for so long. Off the court, she is one of my best friends, and we just want what is best for each other.”
Added Leonard: “We are always there to encourage, and that is one of the most important things that you can have in a friendship is somebody that will stand behind you – right or wrong. They are going to be there to support you and lift you up when nobody else will. I have enjoyed having Caroline here for the last two years for that right there. There have been times I have had a bad day, and she has brought me a Smoothie. The support really means a lot, and our chemistry together just feels like old times like we are playing in high school.”