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Janiah Barker, Montverde win GEICO Nationals for injured Jordana Codio

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(Courtesy of SEQL [Sports Equality])

When it was over, when the final buzzer had sounded on the Montverde girls’ basketball team’s GEICO Nationals victory, Janiah Barker wrapped her arms around her best friend. Together, they cried.

“We did this,” Barker said to Jordana Codio, “for you.”

Just over a year ago, the stars from opposite Florida coasts decided to team up for their senior seasons. Barker, a 5-star forward per ESPN, and Codio, a 4-star guard, had long been AAU teammates, and both were in search of a change of scenery — and a national championship.

They landed on Montverde, a boarding school about 25 miles outside Orlando long known as a powerhouse for men’s basketball. Second-year coach Special Jennings was intent on building that same reputation for the girls’ team, and Barker and Codio fit right into her vision.

Seventeen games into the season, everything was going according to plan. The Eagles had won 14 games, and Barker and Codio were the team’s two leading scorers. Then, near the end of the third quarter of Montverde’s game against Cardinal Mooney (Sarasota, Fla.) on Jan. 21, Codio — whose junior season had been cut short by a torn ACL — rose for a layup.

“As I planted to go up, a girl bumped me. She was a little late to help,” Codio said. “My knee buckled on the way up, and I fell down. In that instant, I already knew I had done it again.”

Splayed out on the floor, Codio “made a scene” as her teammates surrounded her. “Oh my god! Oh my god!” she shouted, more from the emotional weight of the moment than physical pain.

An MRI revealed Codio had, in fact, suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee for the second year in a row. Codio’s dreams of winning GEICO Nationals with her best friend had been dashed, but some words of encouragement from Barker helped brighten her outlook:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Codio had good reason to believe Barker.

Her junior season at American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) had been sullied even before the first ACL tear. In response to a racial slur being used in a virtual classroom, Codio and a teammate wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts during pregame warm-ups. After American Heritage administration asked the players not to wear the shirts moving forward, citing a violation of uniform policy, Codio and her teammate said they would do so anyway. The following two games were then canceled. The administration said the cancellations were due to COVID-19 concerns, but others took the act as retaliation, and the story gained national attention.

It was a turbulent time, Codio said, but it brought her to a better place. She knew it was time to transfer, and she wondered if Barker might be looking to team up.

The two first met in the ninth grade on a recruiting visit to Florida, and their relationship blossomed when they discovered their on-court chemistry playing for Essence, their AAU team.

“We played really good together,” Codio said. “We were each other’s hype man.”

After three seasons at Tampa Bay Tech, where she developed into the No. 3 player in the class of 2022, Barker was also looking for a new home. She wanted to compete on the national level.

“Before I even got to Montverde, I knew GEICO was the end goal,” Barker said on an episode of WSlAM’s “All Eyes on Us.” Codio, sitting beside Barker, nodded her head silently.

For 17 games, the duo got to share the court, leading Montervde to wins over some of the nation’s best, including a 56-51 victory over Duncanville (Texas) on Nov. 26.

When Codio went down, Barker — and the rest of her Eagles teammates — found a renewed purpose.

“Everyone wanted to win for her, because she’s a fighter,” Jennings said. “We wanted to send her off the right way.”

Codio embraced her role as unofficial team mascot. Held upright by crutches, she cheered her teammates on during practice, and even helped operate the clock. By the start of GEICO Nationals last weekend, Codio had shed her crutches and was ready to watch her team from the bench.

She watched as Montverde, led by Barker’s 13 points and seven rebounds, beat DME 67-54 in the national semifinal, and then New Hope 61-57 in the final. The Eagles overcame a seven-point deficit with five minutes remaining after Jennings posed the team a question during a timeout: “How do you want to be remembered?”

As the rest of the Eagles stormed Jennings, Barker hung back and hugged Codio, who will look to mount another comeback next season as a freshman at Texas. Barker’s future is more uncertain: After Georgia coach Joni Taylor left to take the job at Texas A&M, Barker reopened her commitment.

Wherever she ends up, Barker will no doubt take inspiration from Codio’s journey. She likely won’t be the only one.

“Her story should be heard by other young girls,” Jennings said of Codio. “It takes a strong individual to go through what she’s gone through. I think that should be spoken about and celebrated.”

Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.