High school rivalry fades away for talented Missouri freshmen

The Tigers’ newest arrivals have grown closer on and off the court.

Before Missouri freshmen Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank were college teammates, they were high school rivals.

Together, they’re part of one of the program’s best-ever recruiting classes. Blackwell, the state’s top recruit, was ranked No. 9 in the country by ESPN and played with the USA U18 National Team. Frank was Missouri’s Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year two years in a row and won four state championships.

In high school, they met in postseason play two years in a row. Frank’s team, Strafford, won both matchups, part of a 115-game winning streak.

Naturally, there was a rivalry.

“We had a little beef in high school,” Blackwell said. “I just think it was us wanting the same thing.”

Indeed, Blackwell and Frank did want the same thing: to play basketball at Missouri. Now teammates, Blackwell and Frank are leaving any “beef” in the past.

“It was just on the court,” Frank said. “We wanted to win, we were really competitive. I feel like outside people were what made it into more of a rivalry than it was.”

With outside factors removed, the two freshmen have grown closer since arriving on campus.

“Nothing between [us],” Blackwell said. “Me and Hayley, we’re like sisters.”

They’ll have to stay close as they adjust to the college game in Missouri’s self-professed “new era.” Charged with replacing stars like Sophie Cunningham, there’s no time to waste.

“They don’t get to be a freshman,” coach Robin Pingeton said. “I know [Blackwell] gets tired of me talking about Sophie, but we make a lot of parallels. Their paths are going to be similar. She has the ability to impact our team in such a big way.”

Blackwell and Frank have already had an impact in the Tigers’ two exhibition games before the start of the upcoming season. The duo combined for exactly half of Missouri’s points in its 94-55 win over Truman State. When the Tigers defeated Fontbonne 121-40, Frank scored 17 points while Blackwell put up 16 and had nine steals.

The competition may not have been at the level the Tigers will face during the regular season, but the freshmen have already established themselves as key players within Missouri’s system.

“I’m not surprised,” Pingeton said after their first minutes in Missouri uniforms. “This is what we expect out of them … they complement each other so well.”

Based on their playing styles, Pingeton plans to use Blackwell and Frank differently within her system. Blackwell’s powerful game is effective on offense, but her defensive abilities have shone in exhibition games. Frank brings more offensive prowess to the table as well as a “high basketball IQ” that has earned rave reviews from her coach.

“Hayley Frank is a kid who can score [from anywhere],” Pingeton said. “Aijha [is] the most explosive and powerful athlete that I’ve coached in my three years of coaching. Get out of her way, that’s all I’m going to say.”

Regardless of their roles in the upcoming season, Blackwell and Frank are primed to usher in a new era with Missouri. Blackwell says their journey will be worth watching.

“I think our story is going to be special,” she said.

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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