How do you get a group of giggly 13-year-old girls to focus intently on executing a 1-3-1 zone defense? Have Avril Lavigne play the baseline? Perhaps, but it's actually easier than that. All you have to do is round up a group of athletic girls who click. Throw in devoted parents and two experienced coaches and what do you have? Not only a team that can "flawlessly" execute the 1-3-1 zone, but go undefeated on the season like Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School's 8th grade girls' basketball team did this season.
The Eagles closed out their stellar season two weeks ago with 24 straight wins. They won every time they stepped on the court, including the titles for the Tony Trofimuk Memorial tournament and the Berwyn tournament.
What was it? A 6-foot-9-inch giant in the middle? A sharp-shooting 3-point specialist? An all-around dynamo of an athlete well-advanced beyond her years?
It wasn't any of these things, which makes this story all the more touching. Brooks didn't have a star player this season; it had a star team.
"Some teams have a star player, but every one of the players on this team could compete against anyone their age," says Mike Raith, Brooks' co-head coach. "It really makes things easier for a coach. If an opponent tried to shoot-down one of our scorers, another one would pop up. It was amazing."
Raith is only talking offense. His fellow coach, Bruce Harken, says he was smitten by the way the team performed defensively.
"They ran our zone flawlessly. A lot of the times when you run a zone, you get a lot of players standing around, watching," he said. "That wasn't the case with this team. They moved as a unit. They were one."
Let's sprinkle in some individual stats anyway. Gabrielle Cole, who stands around 6-foot in height, punched in 165 total points in the 24 games played. That's nearly seven points per game. Caneka Davis poured in 136 points on the year and Christian Conway added 83 points. Asia Babbington ran the baseline vigorously in the 1-3-1 defensive scheme. The effort that Harken called "vital to the defense" paid off in the form of eight rebounds per game. Rose Morrissey pocketed 2-3 steals per game for the Eagles.
Other members who were part of the star unit were: Roneesha Battle, Katharine Burkland, Clare Kelly, Aarielle Price, Regan Riley, Megan White, Bernadette Wilkie, and Morgan Williams.
Both coaches attribute the team's success this season to the players. The parents, like Mike White, father of Megan White, a speedy guard on the team, attribute the success in part to the coaches. The players say it was a combination of good coaching, supportive parents, mixed with skillful athletes. Not only are they good athletes, the Eagles know how to distribute the credit.
"Our team was so good because we worked so well together," says Megan White, a top defensive player and scorer (163 total points on the year) for the Eagles. "Everything just clicked together."
The tournament wins not withstanding, which included a 29-24 victory over Ascension School in the Trofimuk championship game, the one game that seems to stand out prominently in everyone's mind is the showdown with River Forest rival Roosevelt earlier this month. The Eagles came from behind to defeat Roosevelt, always a tough opponent, 33-29.
The only other team this good that Harken could recall was the boys' team that went 49-1 in 1998 and 1999.
"Other than that team," said Harken, who has coached at many levels on and off for over 20 years, "this was by far one of the best teams I've seen. Not only were they good basketball players, they were good athletes, good students."
Raith, who has coached several individual stars like former Fenwick standout Raven Gengler, says he'll savor this year's success for a while.
"You don't usually get a group of girls who cooperate with each other like this team," he says. "It'll probably be a long time before I see such a great overall team as this one."