I feel like I have been educated beyond my wildest dreams when it comes to AAU, dealing with injuries, and college recruiting. I remember how we got started with AAU. Jen and Lauren’s good friend from cheerleading had a brother who played AAU and I began to wonder about AAU for girls. The girls had been playing at a local community center, but seemed as if they wanted to pursue basketball to the next level. I researched AAU on the internet and found the email address for the main North Carolina office in Greensboro. I sent an email to the office asking for a team in the Winston-Salem area. I was sent the email address to Coach Robinson (Coach “R”). I contacted him and he said the try outs were three days later. The first day of tryouts was a nervous day for Jennifer. I’ll never forget it. She was the only player to show up wearing cheerleading shorts and everyone noticed. To this day, they still tease her. The tryouts were held in the very small gym at the central YWCA. Jennifer and Lauren tried out the same weekend, but for different teams. When Jennifer walked into the gym, everyone, including the parents, looked at Jennifer and was amazed at how tall she was. It was as if the other players had never seen a female basketball player that tall. As parents, I can’t tell you how nervous we were for Jennifer and Lauren. Randy and I were so worried that one would make it and the other wouldn’t. We were trying to figure out what we would say and how we would say it. The common reason would be that it just wasn’t your time. Finally, we found out that both girls had made a team. Jen had made the 11u Stealers team and it was going to be a pretty good team with Coach R and Deana Smart as coaches. This was a time when Coach R coached all of his teams. It was an exciting time for all of us.
Making a team was one thing, but progressing and getting playing time was another. This part was a struggle at times. The team struggled at first. Sometimes, her team couldn’t win a game if their lives depended on it. We would ask Coach R about it and he would just tell us to give it time, they would figure it all out. Meanwhile, Jennifer wasn’t always the most coordinated player around. As several people told her in the past, when she ran down the court, she ran like a girl. And to be honest, she did. I remember every time they would run “vegas” in order to break the press, she had her troubles. She knew the play and all she had to do was stand in the middle of the court, catch the ball, turn, and throw it to the opposite side. Easy, right? Not for Jen, every time she would catch the ball and turn, she would travel and cause a turnover. Everybody knew it was coming, but Brian and Deana had a lot of patience. They knew she would eventually get it. Even the other parents were patient with her. It’s so easy to get frustrated with other players on a team, but it’s so important not to let it show. It’s also hard not to get frustrated with the coach. You have to realize that the coach is qualified to coach and knows what is best for your daughter. There were plenty of times that Randy and I would get frustrated, but we could still see improvement in Jen. As parents, you have to realize that it’s not about you, it’s about your child. Sometimes when Jen made a mistake in the game, she would immediately be taken out. It was hard to deal with that as parents. You want them to be successful. She always played second string until Nationals at Kingsport, Tn. She had been playing for two years with the Stealers. Her team had become a good team. They started on a run and won several games at Nationals. This was when they realized how good they could become. At the end of the tournament, Coach R took Jen aside and told her that she had turned the corner to becoming a good player. Jen will never forget this. It was at that moment that Jen had figured it out. She figured out her role, her position, and began to play with confidence. Confidence makes a big difference in a player. During this AAU season, Jen also took agility classes which would work with her speed, coordination, and core muscles with exercises and weights. I think these classes increased her coordination and as a result increased her strength and confidence.
At the 13u Nationals, the following year, we began to see college recruiting coaches come out to watch the players. Sometimes they were not looking at our players, but there were a few looking at the other teams. It was at this time, I believe, that Coach R started the 292 program. Jen and Lauren were some of his first clients. He saw a move toward recruiting showcase tournaments for the girls. He saw that the college coaches were moving away from AAU Nationals and going to see several of the best teams around in one location, at a recruiting showcase tournament. I believe in what the 292 program can do for you and what it can offer. The connection that Coach R has with all of the women’s basketball programs is amazing. We started out early using these connections as a way to watch other coaches and to see other programs. To date, we have seen approximately 30 programs all over the southeast. On most occasions, Coach R helped with setting these up. The 292 program is a service that you purchase. It is an advisory program that a player can use to get to the next level. Coach R is not an agent, but a service. The 292 program offers knowledge about how to show yourself to the coaches, how to establish a relationship with coaches, knowledge on going to watch other coaches and programs, and knowledge on how to make yourself better. When we first started playing in the showcase tournaments, it was hard. We were playing very good teams, losing just about every time, and sometimes not having any coaches coming to the games. But what did happen is that we were put in the best position possible to be seen by as many coaches as possible.
Getting recruited and showcasing is an interesting business. There are so many rules with the NCAA that sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of them all. College coaches will start out keeping a name on a list of possibly over 100 players just in order to maintain contact with players from a particular class that could possibly fit their program. They usually maintain these contacts using general correspondence saying that they have seen you play and that you look like you could fit into their program. Those are great letters and it is important to receive them. It allows you to feel that you are doing the right thing. Jen received a lot of letters, but one thing that we learned was that the letters counted the most when they were received in the Junior and Senior recruiting seasons. These letters showed the schools that were really interested. And of all of the letters, she never received a letter from the school that she will actually be playing at, the US Naval Academy. As parents and players, you have to keep everything in perspective. The most important thing is to play hard. A good player shows the things that they know how to do with confidence. One thing you don’t want to do is to go out on the court and try to make moves that you can’t do with confidence. The coach also likes what they see off of the court as well. They look at the parents and how they interact with the player, they look at the player to see how they interact with their coaches and teammates, and they look to see how the player responds to causing a turnover or making a bad pass. They look at so many things. The Naval Academy coach said that she watched Jen a lot off of the court and how she carried herself. She also watched Randy and I and how we showed support for her and her team. Then she saw that Jen would be very coachable. We certainly have learned a lot getting Jen recruited.
The spring/summer after Jen’s sophomore year was extremely tough. She faced adversity for the entire summer. During the first weekend after school ended, Jen was at Carolina elite camp. We had a jam packed summer planned with elite camps, team camps, and showcases. All of these plans changed in an instant. When she got hurt, she went down on the court, but was able to walk off on her own. The trainers at Carolina thought it was it was a hyper extended knee. They told her to put ice on it and she could get back on the court after a couple of hours. She went back out, went up to block a shot and fell again. Again, she walked off on her own. The next day I was out of town and Randy had business meetings so she packed up her car by herself and drove home on her own. Everyone that she talked to thought that she was fine. The next day, she went to the doctor and her life changed. She was so distraught over everything. When this happened, the first thing she thought of was that her basketball career was over. It was her the summer of her before her junior year and she knew that it wasn’t good to be out. But, Coach R was a big help during this time. He reassured us that it was okay and that we should try to go to as many tournaments as possible. He told us that the coaches look at other things when you can’t get out on the court. They look at the all around players i.e. attitude, team support, and how you act when you can’t play. Getting hurt was really devastating, but Jen learned a lot about herself. She realized that nothing was the end if you don’t want it to be. Coming back from an injury took dedication and commitment. Occasionally, just like any other teenager, she would give reasons why she didn’t want to work. My part was easy. All I had to say was that every day that she didn’t work out or do physical therapy, was one more day that she couldn’t get back on the court. That was all of the incentive she needed. Right after surgery, she was going to the YMCA every day. This was in addition to the prescribed physical therapy. She would start by riding the bike a lot. After riding the stationary bike, she would lift weights. This was her workout every day. Once she was cleared to run on a treadmill, she would ride the bike as a warm up, lift, and then run/walk on the treadmill. Every day, it was the same. She made goals for each part of the process. Her overall goal was to make it back in 4 months which is extremely aggressive, but she made little goals along the way so that when these were accomplished, she had achieved little pieces of success. This allowed her to feel good about herself and made her want to get to the next goal. She was released from the doctor and told that she could play after the 4 months. If we had it to do all over again, we would have the same aggressive goal of 4 months, but when she did play again, we would place doctor enforced limits on the playing time so that the knee was not under so much stress. You have to realize that accidents do happen and they are sometimes out of your control, but the sooner you realize that everything happens for a reason and you just have to figure out the reason, the better.
Before Jen’s school year started, we, as a family, went on a southeastern tour of schools and basketball programs. We went to a wide range of schools. It took about 10 days in total. We used our connections with Coach R through the 292 program to set up all of our meetings. We did this for several reasons. Nowadays, the basketball world is so competitive; you have to have marketable skills in order to set yourself apart from the next guard or post player. If there is a signature move that you are comfortable with, then stick with that move. It’s called a go to move. When we went on our trip, we took a dvd of her sophomore season showing her highlights and a couple of complete games. This trip also helped us get her name back out there after her injury. Our trip was a lot of fun and we learned a lot about the different basketball programs out there. Her junior year at high school was probably her hardest time outside of getting injured. She didn’t realize how much her injury had affected her skills. An injury can have an impact on your speed, foot movement, muscle strength, etc. These are all things that she worked on along with the recovery of the injury. She struggled in the fall. She would have a setback and then comeback. These setbacks happened a couple of times, but by January of 2008, she started to really feel like herself again. It was great to have her back.
Finally, her last recruiting season was here. She had such high expectations. She and her teammates were so nervous. It was unnerving for the girls and the parents. You realize as a parent how important your child’s dream is to them. You want them to have it all. You also begin to think about what happens if Jen doesn’t get to achieve her dream. There were so many times that I would talk to Coach R about recruiting and getting offers or lack of and we would be on the verge of pushing the panic button. Every time we talked with him, he would reassure us and tell us that everything would be ok. Jen had received offers from a couple of schools only to have them taken away for various reasons i.e. transfers of players and/or giving the scholarship to someone else that happened to come along right after Jen. But, it really started happening for us in the first July tournament. This was when the Naval Academy coach first saw Jen play. I think she watched her in a couple more games after that. In August, we were traveling up to Mars Hill for an unofficial visit and Coach R sent Jen a text letting her know that Navy was very interested and they wanted Jen to call them. Jen at first said she wasn’t interested in the military at all. So Coach R told her “Anchors Aweigh”, purely as a joke.
I told Jen that she needed to give the coach a call and just see what it was like. After about a thirty minute conversation, Jen said that she wasn’t interested at all. During the conversation, Coach Pemper had requested her transcript. Shortly after, when the coach could call, she called Jen and talked with her about the Navy again. In the meantime, we began to discuss what an honor it was for her to be recruited by the US Naval Academy. We talked about medical school and the possibilities of going to med school in the Navy. Jen’s concerns were that it was the military and it had uniforms, plebe summer, and no social life involved. Jen didn’t see a normal college life, she saw “different”. In September, the coach asked if she would be interested in making an official visit. Jen said yes, but was still unsure. Randy and I told her to at least explore the possibility. Jen and Coach Pemper set up the official visit weekend and then the coach said that she wanted to come for a home visit first. I freaked out. The house was a wreck and I had to cook dinner. It went ok, but right in the middle of dinner, Jen suggested that she come back so that the house would look great again. Everyone laughed. When she left, Jen was definitely sure that she didn’t want to attend and play for the Navy. The very next night, we went to an information session at a local school on the Naval Academy and getting into the academy. When we arrived, we parked next to two midshipmen. We walked in with them and they were very nice. They were female athletes who ran track. You know me, I’m not shy. I asked if they liked it and what they liked the most. They said that it is hard and plebe summer is hard, but it’s not “that” hard. I said that Jen was being recruited to play basketball and they said that about 95% of the females that attended the academy were intercollegiate athletes. When we found our seats in the auditorium, it filled up quickly and was soon packed with standing room only. Jen looked around and said, “All of these people want to go to the Naval Academy and I’m sitting here undecided.” Some of her questions were answered and she seemed a lot more open to the whole idea of the Academy as a possible school choice for her but she was still unsure about her decision and whether this commitment was the right one for her. This was on a Friday. Well, on Saturday, the Navy football team came to Winston-Salem to play Wake. Wake was expected to win, but Navy pulled off the upset and beat Wake. Meanwhile, we did some more research and found out that they will pay for medical school in full if Jen was accepted into their program. I began to see all of our signs pointing us to the Naval Academy. Then later that day, I spoke to Coach R. I talked about how all of these things were happening for a reason. He began to see it, too. On Sunday, he talked with Jen about seriously considering this offer and that it would be, by far, the best offer she would ever receive and that it was an honor to be considered. We went on the official visit.
The official visit was awesome. We went up on Thursday and she stayed with me the first night at a Westin. On Friday, we had breakfast with a couple of the assistant coaches and afterwards, they took her to meet her host player. The schedule was pretty tight. They went to a class, watched the noon formation, ate lunch with approximately 4,000 other people, went on a tour of the campus and facility, and then watched practice. After dinner, she and the rest of the team went to a soccer game. She stayed in the only dorm on campus which houses every midshipman under one roof. The next day, she went to a practice, lunch at the coach’s house, and then to the football game. After the excitement of the football game, we went to one of the best seafood restaurants in Annapolis. The whole weekend was great. She then realized that she was “home”. She felt comfortable with her coaches and her team. And the uniforms and dorm rooms didn’t bother her a bit. And the social life seemed to be more than she had thought it would be. She had a great time.
One other aspect of basketball that she has had the privilege to do is to coach for the Stealers. She is very proud of herself and feels like that in itself has contributed to her success on and off the court. Thanks to Coach R for giving her the opportunity, coaching has helped her see the court in a different perspective. She sees every position instead of just seeing hers and the basket. Coaching has helped with leadership skills and making sure that the younger girls show respect for each other, learn how to play as a team to accomplish one goal, and to learn fundamental basketball skills. And off the court, the benefits have been limitless. She has learned how to work with people, especially younger players and their parents. She has worked with players at every skill level and basketball IQ which has enabled her to handle different situations in a way that helps others. Having coached for four years has taught her about responsibility, respect, and commitment. She has been very blessed to have been able to coach young girls in her favorite sport in hopes that they will continue on with basketball in their future as well. Jen feels that if she can leave a good impression with a younger player and her parents, then Jen will have benefited from it as well. She has truly seen life from a different perspective. She has seen life through the eyes of a younger mind. I’m very proud of her for taking on such a big responsibility.
As I said before, as a parent, I have learned so much about AAU, injuries, college recruiting, and more importantly, parenting. Unfortunately, parenting doesn’t come with a handbook or “parenting for dummies” book. You have take each experience as it comes and trust your instincts. As a player, love the journey you experience growing up. The ride isn’t without bumps in the road or major curves, but you only go around once, so make the absolute most of it. Jen learned a lot along the way of her journey, we all did. But, one thing is definite; I would not have traded anything in the world for our experience, good and bad. It was great and I’m really glad that it all circled around the Winston-Salem Stealers.