Select Division I State Champ Liberty gives powerful display of family; honors late wife of Patriots’ long-time assistant Charles Carter during title run

by William Weathers // Contributor

After wiping away his own tears of joy, Liberty senior guard Howard Gaskins Jr. ventured into a joyous locker room March 6 at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles to celebrate his team’s first state championship.

Liberty, formerly known as Lee High School, had steadily knocked on the door among the state’s top programs, appearing in the Division II select state semifinals in 2021 and state championship game in ’22. The Patriots were disqualified from the playoffs a year ago, though, when a skirmish that involved players and fans near the end of the regular season brought an end to their season.

Liberty played another challenging schedule in 2023-24, including out-of-state competition in elite tournaments, to prepare for the grind of scaling the mountain in both District 4-5A and the Division I select schools in Louisiana.

The Patriots were either the No. 1 or No. 2 in the state’s power ratings for most of the season and entered the postseason seeded second and following an opening-round bye, were paired with district foes Catholic High and Scotlandville, the previous two winners of the Division state titles.

“It was a gauntlet,” Liberty assistant coach Charles Carter Jr. said. “We told them if they could make it through those games there’s no reason why you shouldn’t win a state championship. Those are marquee matchups. You want to go through those teams because they’ll let you know where you stand.”

Liberty navigated its way past Catholic (56-40) and Scotlandville (53-46) to return to the state tournament for the third time in four years. A big fourth-quarter surge carried the Patriots past sixth-seeded Southwood (53-27), setting up a matchup with top-seeded St. Thomas More, which eliminated them in the ’21 semifinals.

Junior guard Chivas Lee, the game’s Most Outstanding Player, exploded for 11 first-quarter points with three 3-pointers, and gave Liberty an eye-opening 20-0 lead in the opening quarter. The Patriots took a 35-16 lead into halftime, enabling them to withstand STM’s best shot in the second half.

Senior forward Marquise McPipe’s field goal resulted in Liberty’s 47-34 lead late in the third quarter when STM applied the heat, getting within 49-44 near the end of the quarter, and again at 60-58 with eight seconds remaining.

Senior guard Malek Robinson scored five of his 10 points from the foul line in the fourth and Liberty showed its mettle in a 62-58 victory. Lee was among five players in double figures with 16 points, followed by Gaskins with 12 (including two key free throws with 9.6 seconds to go), and 10 each from Robinson, McPipe and Jaylen Peters.

The Patriots (26-3) ended the season on a 10-game winning streak.

“I think that was a shock to everybody,” Carter said of the team’s 20-0 start to the game. “We knew we needed an offensive explosion, but we didn’t expect that. Then in the second half I think we got a little laxed and stopped being aggressive. We told them to keep going and not take their foot off the gas. We missed some free throws that we shouldn’t have missed. That almost came back to bite us at the end.”

Carter recalled an emotional embrace with head coach Brandon White after the buzzer sounded. The two high school teammates and friends at Glen Oaks, it was White who called Carter eight years ago to join his staff, defying critics for taking the job at Lee High School which officially became Liberty in the fall of 2020.

He remembered hearing that White wouldn’t be able to win at a place that hadn’t enjoyed annual success, nor to able to take advantage of the school’s magnet program and attract the necessary talent to one day put the Patriots on the state’s basketball map.

“I just hugged coach, it was a sigh of relief,” Carter said. “When he took this job people were asking why; you won’t be able to get any kids over there. You won’t be able to win there. That resonated in our minds the whole time we’ve been here. We didn’t have any transfers, just kids that came in as freshmen and worked their way up. I wanted to prove the doubters wrong. Let’s show them what we can do.”

In the team’s jubilant locker room after winning the state title, Gaskins said he saw a glow in Carter’s eyes, something that seemed to exude a deep-soul tranquility.

“It was like something I had never seen before,” Gaskins said. “I had never seen him that happy.”

‘The lowest I’ve been in my life’

Carter had met Jennifer Ashley Mitchell, a native of Shreveport, during their collegiate days at Southern University in 2014. They dated for 1 ½ years, were engaged for a year and married four years later.

“There was an aura about her,” Carter said. “I was thinking she was almost the perfect woman for me. I was asking God to send me the perfect mate. She was just perfect in all kinds of ways.”

Carter was a sales consultant for Southern Glazers Wine & Spirts and together with Jennifer, created a rental properties company. Basketball wasn’t his primary job, serving as a Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CECP) with the Christian Life Academy girl’s program, while Jennifer earned her Juris Doctorate from Southern after graduating from LSU.

She was a founding partner in Pearson & Mitchell LLC, a law firm based out of New Orleans, served as an instructor at Baton Rouge Community College and worked in the office of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. She was also a staff attorney on the Louisiana state Senate’s General Government Affairs Committee.

Carter said at the heart of the relationship with his wife was their love for one another and family.

“We shared the same core values as far as raising a family,” Carter said. “Things we wanted to do as far as traveling, things we wanted to build as far as businesses go. It just gelled well. To me, it felt like a soul mate. It was like everything you wanted in a person. You sign up for lifetime vows and this was it.”

Jennifer also had a profound love of sports and supported her husband’s endeavors which included Liberty High basketball when Carter joined White’s staff.

“She started the journey with us, even on the nights when she didn’t want to be in the gym,” Carter said. “We played on Valentine’s night a lot. She would have a conference and we played one night, and it was off to Lafayette the next day. You do what you have to do. You make those sacrifices.”

Pearson & Mitchell was one of the first businesses to sponsor Liberty’s basketball program and they remain an annual contributor. 

“She helped us get everything going,” White said. “She did a whole bunch.”

With White creating a sense of family within the Liberty program, Carter and his wife discussed the prospect of starting their own family.

The product of two loving families of their own, and an extended circle of friends with families of their own, the Carters were nearing five years of marriage. Despite their busy lifestyles, the thought of having a family was often a topic of discussion looking for a starting point.

Carter always believed that such a gigantic step in life required a necessary level of solvency.

“I wanted to get to a point financially where we felt we were ready,” he said. “We finally got to that point.”

The Carters were ready to share with the world May 25, 2019, they were expecting. Amid friends and family, they hosted a gender reveal party at their home where everyone learned Jennifer’s first pregnancy would result in the birth of a boy.

“I was having a son, I was more ecstatic,” Carter said. “I have an older brother and sister and they have kids. My dad just loves to be in the backyard with the grandkids. For me to have a son, I was just waiting to get in the backyard and do the things with my son and do the same things I did growing up with my dad.”

Two days later the family’s elation turned to devastation.

Before going to work Carter followed his morning routine that was sealed with a kiss, an expression of his love for his wife.

That morning Jennifer was with a group of friends from Shreveport the day after her best friend’s birthday. They were sitting on a bed exchanging girl talk, sharing laughs, when Jennifer collapsed and was unresponsive.

Carter hurriedly returned home to find EMS working to revive his 34-year-old wife. 

They were unsuccessful.

For a woman such as Jennifer, who was in the prime of her life, so respected by peers, family members and friends, to be gone two days after one of the happiest moments with her husband, rocked those closest to the core.

“It’s like something you would see in a movie,” White said. “You would have never thought something like that would ever happen that close around you. People pass, but how it happened to him and his family, to lose everything in blink of an eye.”

Carter remembered the abrupt 180-degree turn in his life, the loss of his wife and unborn son.

“It (expecting a son) was just a blessing and for that to happen was a pain that I don’t wish on anyone,” he said. “You go from talking to someone every day to all of a sudden not talking to that person. It was devastating, the lowest I’ve been in my life.”

Condolences poured in from all parts of the state and especially in the Baton Rouge community where Jennifer was a well-respected attorney.

She was memorialized for her work as an attorney and in the senate by then Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson in an emotional tribute on the floor of Louisiana Senate. Her family also established a scholarship earmarked for deserving students in the Southern Law Center that best exemplify the qualities and leadership possessed by Jennifer Carter and to ensure that her legacy lived on.

“Even though she’s not here any longer, she’s still helping people,” Carter said.

Gaskins, who entered Liberty’s program two years after Jennifer’s passing, understands the gifts she continues to grant through her law firm’s sponsorship of the basketball program, or annual scholarship to an aspiring law student at Southern.

“Even though she’s not physically still around, she has given back to the community since,” Gaskins said. “It shows what type of person she was and what type of impact she made when she was here. I can definitely see that with coach Carter and everybody he’s touched. He’s a real down-to-earth person and has made an impact. Anything I need, or when I want to talk to somebody, I can always call coach and he’s going to always be there for me.”

Committed for the long haul

White, who was married the same year as the Carters, expected one of his best friends to take an extended leave from the program. But to his surprise, Carter never ventured far from the team’s script of summer league basketball and weightlifting for the ’19-’20 season.

“He said he was committed to it,” White said. “He took some time off but was right back at it. He said he had to have something to keep going.”

There was always an allure to athletics for Carter, in particular basketball, because of the reward that came from molding young men through hard work and discipline into successful teams. For those who needed it, he wanted to serve as a father figure and a positive male role model, much like his own father, Charles Sr., had done for him.

Not even the biggest tragedy in his life would deter him from remaining on that path.

Carter was absent for the first month of the team’s summer league before gradually coming back for the second month in July. He credited the team for being an inspiration when the four walls of his home he was staring at each day made for a lonely home.

“I couldn’t just sit home and wallow in grief,” he said. “It was refreshing to be around the boys at that point. I’m the type of guy that once I start something, I’m going to finish. I wasn’t going to leave coach White. As long as he’s here, I’m here. I tell him all the time, the day you go somewhere else, I’m done with it. Anything you need me to do, I’m here with you.”

Less than a year after the death of his wife, Carter’s world grew dimmer by the arrival of a world-wide pandemic – COVID-19 – that forced him almost exclusively to remain home and remain socially distant.

It exacerbated an already fragile situation.

“I had to sit in that house with that grief which was another downer,” he said.

Carter was never resistant to the thought of getting help, but as a full-blooded male he questioned the rationale. He finally underwent counseling for two years beginning in ’21 and although he completed terms of the program, remains a phone call away from his therapist.

“Mentally I’m in a better place,” he said. “It helped a lot. It was hard for me to go talk to someone who hadn’t experienced what I went through. I found it refreshing. I needed to be able to talk to somebody, I needed a release.”

The thrill of victory

For the first time in his tenure at Liberty, Carter handed over the reigns of the junior varsity program to a younger coach, a requisite for anyone aspiring to become a head coach one day.

Carter had a front-row seat to the future of Liberty basketball that included the arrival of this year’s senior-laden team in ’22.

“I enjoyed playing for him,” Gaskins said. “At first, I used to get mad because he used to get on me and was real hard on me. As I grew up and matured, I realized what he was telling me, I was starting to get the message. I really appreciated him more. He’s a real guy who tells you what it is and what it’s not.”

White, who is two years younger, was a teammate of Carters when the two played for legendary coach Harvey Adger at Glen Oaks. They were both well-schooled in the fundamentals, used to winning at a high level and seemingly equipped to follow in the footsteps of Adger and fellow GOHS assistant Jeff Jones, now of Madison Prep Academy.

The reality of developing a successful culture at Liberty began when White assembled his staff and delegated responsibilities to carry out with the hopes of elevating the Patriots’ program. He trusted no one more than Carter who received the first phone call to join him at Liberty. Above the team’s locker room was the familiar phrase they first learned under Adger: ‘Discipline Must Rule’.

“He’s been my right-hand guy since then,” White said. “He’s been the ‘cool’ coach. He covers everything from determining the warm-up suits the kids want to wear, to substituting guys in the game. This is our team, and we operate in that capacity.”

There’s been a staple on Liberty’s game day attire White introduced six months after the sudden passing of Jennifer.

When the Patriots first took court to begin the ’19-’20 season, the left shoulder of the shooting shirts they wore over their jerseys were adorned with – JAMC – in a tribute to Carter’s wife that remains in place today.

“I didn’t really ask him,” White said. “He didn’t say much about it. If he isn’t, he’s one of the strongest people I know.”

Carter recalled the sight of his late wife’s initials on the team’s shooting shirts for the first time five years ago.

“I was shocked,” he said. “He (White) said he wanted to do something to honor her. I said whatever you want to do I’m open. I’m fine.”

Carter remains steadfast in his beliefs of getting married again and starting a family. He’s had no greater role model than his parents who have been married for 52 years.

There will never be a time Carter replaces Jennifer, but his life will move on under the guidance of a higher power.

“That’s the biggest thing that I battle with,” Carter said. “I do want a family. Do I want to get married? I don’t know if it will get better again. The bar was set real high. I know whoever comes along next, it will be in the back of their mind, too. I don’t want them to try and measure up, just be yourself. It’s an everyday struggle. I do want a family. Because of my parents, that’s what I know.”

Liberty showed signs of living up to its tremendous promise with a 5-1 mark in a pair of out-of-state tournaments over the first two months of the season. The Patriots finished the regular season 22-4 with monumental wins over eventual state champions Ponchatoula (Division I non-select) and Peabody (Division II select) along with key wins over city rival’s Madison Prep and Scotlandville.

Liberty outlasted Catholic, Woodlawn and Scotlandville in single-digit wins to begin its quest for a District 4-5A championship and finished with decisive wins over Zachary and Central. The Patriots’ momentum continued throughout the postseason, defeating Catholic and Scotlandville in a pair of district rematches, before separating themselves in the fourth quarter of the semifinals with Southwood.

That set up the state title matchup with No. 1 St. Thomas More that began with a bang from Liberty and ended in tears of joy for a program that had been led to the top by two high school friends.

“When the buzzer went off, he instantly grabbed me and just hugged me tight,” White said of Carter. “He was saying, ‘We did it. We finally did it.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”

There was also the flood of emotions for Charles Carter to process, namely the unmistakable void in his life he hasn’t been able to replace the past five years, the one missing from her usual spot in the stands behind the team’s bench.

“She would have been so ecstatic,” Carter said of Jennifer. “She knew where we started from. She knows the long nights and hours I was working away from home. She would have thrown us a party.”