Gallaudet's sign of success

Basketball: Led by All-American Ronda Jo Miller, Gallaudet -- a college for the deaf in Washington -- is making its mark in Division III.

February 22, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two minutes to tip-off, the women's basketball team huddles for final instructions. The coach does not speak but moves her hands furiously, as if conducting a Sousa march.

At Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf, the coach shouts with her fingers; the players listen with their eyes.

The message: Play our game, give 100 percent and have fun.

"They get my drift," says Kitty Baldridge, Gallaudet's coach.

The team that cannot hear is making quite a racket. Gallaudet (20-4, 12-2) leads NCAA Division III in scoring as it enters the Capital Athletic Conference tournament tonight with a 7 o'clock game at home against Catholic University.

Led by All-American Ronda Jo Miller, a farmer's daughter, Gallaudet is averaging 90 points a game. Five times, it has topped the century mark, including a 107-62 romp over playoff-bound Western Maryland.

The losers fell prey to Gallaudet's fast break, says Western Maryland coach Becky Martin.

"If I hadn't been so distraught trying to get my team into the game, it would have been nice to sit back and enjoy their transition style," Martin says. "It's off the glass, an outlet pass and away they go. From one end [of the court] to the other, the ball may hit the floor once."

Run silent, run deep. Gallaudet has won 19 of its last 20 games -- including 15 straight at one point -- against NCAA fare, even though all 12 of its players are profoundly deaf.

Imagine not being able to hear a dribble, a whistle, a cheer. Gallaudet players "sign" plays to each other in mid-action, communicating in their everyday language. Defensive changes are prompted by nudges, not shouts.

Coaching a deaf team isn't easy, says Baldridge, who is not deaf. "In practice, I can't blow a whistle and freeze a play the second it goes bad," she says.

Using sign language for strategies and plays takes longer than spoken words, says Baldridge, Gallaudet's coach of 22 years.

"A 20-second timeout is little more than a water break," she says. "I barely have time to `say' anything."

These days, the strategy is straightforward. After six consecutive losing seasons, Gallaudet is 56-20 in the past three years -- a turnaround led by Miller, its 6-foot-2 junior center.

Since Miller's arrival, attendance at Gallaudet women's games has climbed to 400, surpassing crowds for the men's team. People now throng to the Field House, where Bison fans cheer with their feet. Deaf spectators respond on cue from a scoreboard that screams, in big bright letters, "STAMP YOUR FEET MAKE SOME NOISE!!!"

Often, Miller's play triggers the bedlam.

A role model

Deaf since birth, Miller left a Minnesota grain farm to become a role model for the hearing-impaired. Doe-eyed and pony-tailed, she leads Division III in scoring, averaging 27 points on muscle baskets and 30-footers. A point guard trapped in a center's body, Miller can dribble behind her back as well as touch the rim.

"At the least, she's a Division II player at a Division III school," says Martin, the Western Maryland coach.

Miller will get 47 points one night and 27 rebounds the next. Opponents are at a loss to stop her. The 20-year-old is, they say, an extraordinary athlete who happens to be deaf.

"Every time Ronda touches the ball, three people are hanging on and she still gets it done," says Bridget Benshelter, coach at Salisbury State. "She'll start at one side of the backboard, give you a head fake and make a reverse layup on the other side, just like she was tying her sneakers."

Miller's leaping is legend, says Benshelter.

"The woman has springs in her feet," the coach says. "Fool her with a head fake and she'll hit the floor and bounce back up like a pogo stick, boing-boing, and still block the shot."

Last year, Miller blocked nine shots against Mary Washington College in the CAC tournament.

"Ronda has great, great body control," says Connie Gallahan, Mary Washington's coach. "She'll jump overtop you and hang there and block shots without making contact. She gets called for fouls because officials don't think girls can do what she does."

Earlier this month, Miller nailed back-to-back three-pointers within 20 seconds in a futile rally against St. Mary's College. Gallaudet lost after Miller fouled out. She trotted off the floor with the same poker face she had worn during the comeback.

"Her lack of emotion makes her difficult to coach against," says Shann Hart, the St. Mary's coach. "There's no visual intensity. You don't know how to play her because she gives you nothing to go on."

Miller's Sphinx-like demeanor during games contrasts with a playful whimsy among friends. At practice, after an obvious misstep, she'll wrap herself in the gym curtains in mock embarrassment.

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