The shortest girl had the basketball - and the attention of all the other girls, some who towered over her like palms trees above a beach umbrella.
"We thought the taller ones would dominate," mused Barb Crigger from the sidelines, "but they don't, really. At this age, I think the coordination doesn't always match the growth rate."
The small girl surveyed the court. Dodging the other team, she passed the ball.
Her coach shouted approval. She beamed.
This was Saturday morning at the downtown YWCA gym, which was crowded with ball-playing girls ages 8 to 11. Before this program began this year, there wasn't much out there for young girls who want to shoot hoops.
"I've been saying for a while that we need a [basketball] program for young inner-city girls, to get them started early," said Robert DeBoe, a coach who volunteers his time to both the YWCA and St. Hyacinth School teams.
"To be honest," he explained, "my daughter wanted to play basketball at St. Hyacinth, and there was nothing set up there, so I volunteered. I'm still there, but she's in high school now. And then Barb called me."
As the Y's health fitness director, even Barb Crigger was surprised by how little athletic opportunity exists for elementary-aged girls in central-city public schools.
"I researched the need, and there was just nothing out there for these girls. I found out if there's anything at a club level, it's co-ed, and that didn't help the girls much. So I applied for the grant."
Get this: It takes all of $4,000, 10 volunteer coaches, and eight assistants to put on a basketball program for 121 little girls.
Makes me wonder why Barb Crigger had to put her hand out not to some local entity, but to an athletic shoemaker which, some say, exploits other countries' children for manufacturing purposes, but I suppose, sigh, that I digress.
The point, as Coach DeBoe aptly explained, is this: "It's more than just coaching basketball. It's about coaching them for life. Responsibility. The work ethic. Teamwork.''
He's seen it in action.
"I've had kids at St. Hyacinth that I started coaching as fourth graders, and they're in the seventh grade now. They understand the game, yeah, but they've also got a certain maturity."
To say nothing of a better start out of the gate.
Research from The Women's Sports Foundation tells us that female teen athletes are 51 per cent more likely not to have sexual intercourse, and are less than half as likely as nonathletes to get pregnant. In addition, the research shows that young female athletes are more likely to graduate from high school and enjoy academic success.
So, yeah, it's about time someone around this city begged enough money for Toledo's little girls.
"People are still calling, trying to get [into the program], and we're already over goal. We're almost double our target. We're maxed out," Barb said cheerfully.
L. J. Nelson, a volunteer basketball coach for 27 years, swore he'd never oversee a girl's team.
"I didn't think they'd excel. But I came in here and saw something completely different," said Coach Nelson, also a volunteer varsity assistant for the Libbey High team, City League champs after Thursday's thrilling win.
Pointing toward the gym, where the players continued to sweat and pant and smile, he grinned.
"These girls, look at their smiles. They didn't come in here looking like that. They came in looking scared. They don't look too scared of much today, do they?"
Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Readers may contact her at 724-6086, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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