Practice, talent lead to nationals

Howard County parents and coaches say the girls on the Waves 13-and-under basketball team got more than a winning record out of the season.

June 20, 2000|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Like many group pictures, the Waves' team photo was a challenge to organize.

It was 7:20 p.m., and Coach Curry Stone was getting frustrated. He had wanted to start practice at 6:30. Now he hoped for 7:30.

"Come on, let's go!" he cried in exasperation, glancing sideways at the team's other coach, Ronald Royster.

It's hard enough to corral any group of 13-year-old girls. But this Howard County-based basketball team was impossible to calm down. The girls were giddy with the excitement of going to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball tournament at Disney World. Although its popularity fluctuates, Stone said, in general girls basketball has been gaining momentum over the past few years.

The trip to Orlando, Fla., was the whole reason for the shoot because AAU requires all state champion teams to submit a team photo. The girls, decked out in their blue-and-white Waves uniforms, finally arranged themselves in photo formation.

Eric Thomas, the father of one of the players and "team photographer," started snapping shots before everyone was situated. Some of the girls were twisting their hair into last-minute ponytails. Some were still adjusting their jerseys. Fortunately, there were half a dozen parents to oversee the portrait.

"Slide over, you're off center a little bit," one mom told the group.

"Stand up straight and smile," another ordered.

"Mom, I don't think we should smile," a player countered. "We're trying to look serious."

But the girls smiled anyway; how could they not? The team had set a goal when members started practicing last summer: Make it to nationals. Now, players were counting down the days until July 13, when their dream comes true.

The camera clicked a couple of times and the girls broke from formation to switch into practice mode. For them, basketball is about more than jump shots and free throws. It's a game that requires balance.

Stone has worked with AAU programs for seven years, and this is the second group he's taking to nationals.

"This team is one of the two best teams I've ever coached," said Stone, whose daughter was on the first team, which finished 17 out of 102 teams in the country.

As friends, the girls in this year's tournament have thrown their support to teammate Whitney Ward, who is recovering from an operation on a torn knee ligament. She injured it a few weeks ago and won't be able to play in Orlando.

"It's heartbreaking for her," said Rodney Ward, Whitney's dad. "But the girls are helping her to feel better.

On the day of the photo, which was taken just days after her surgery, the team gave her a balloon and flowers. Parents also made sure the photo was taken in an area that Whitney could hobble over to from the van. She won't be able to play, but Whitney will be in Orlando to give her teammates moral support.

AAU girls basketball has taught the teammates how to strike a chord between their roles as friends and their roles as part of a winning team. It isn't always easy with a group of teen-agers entering their social years.

What 13-year-old girl gets along perfectly with adults? The coach-player relationship is not that different from a parent-daughter one. Sometimes the girls don't want to listen to their coaches.

That's where Charity Stone comes in. As the coach's daughter and a former player on the 13-and-under team, Charity is qualified to dispense advice. The fact that she is 17 doesn't hurt, either.

"They're young and they have male coaches that they don't always listen to," Charity said. "But they listen to me - it's not like a parent nagging."

Like a big sister, Charity said the girls sometimes "get an attitude" with her. But mostly, she said, it's a positive relationship - they come to her for advice on three-pointers, and on boys.

If Charity is the big sister of the team, Krystal Williamson is the little sister. The 7-year-old is already involved in basketball. She's a member of the Hurricanes, an AAU team for 7- and 8- year-olds, and often comes to the Waves' practice.

On this day, she sits on the sidelines licking a red lollipop. Her eyes follow her sister, Sparkle, up and down the court.

"One time," Krystal said proudly, popping the sucker out of her mouth, "I got a cheerleading trophy at my sister's game because I was cheering for them so much."

When asked if she wants to play on the Waves one day, Krystal's face breaks into a huge smile and she nods her head emphatically.

The Waves had been practicing twice a week since late February and have stepped up to four practices a week to prepare for nationals. The girls - all from Howard County except three from Anne Arundel County - have gelled well as a team this year. That, Coach Stone said, comes from practice and experience playing together. Five of the Waves girls played on a traveling team with five of the Hurricanes girls earlier this year.

The girls' busy schedules help them stay focused and truly appreciate their free time.

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