By Joseph Robertia
High school can be a tough time, filled with peer pressures and tough decisions. But sometimes, when choices lead to poor results, important life lessons are learned in the process. This has been the case for three teenage girls from Ninilchik School, who almost missed out on the remainder of the basketball season as a result of the actions of some of their teammates.
“It some ways, it ended up being a blessing in disguise,” said Kaylee Smith, a junior at Ninilchik, who plays wing on the school’s Lady Wolverines basketball team.
Or did, until the Lady Wolverines were sidelined after several members of the girls team were found in violation of the contract all high school athletes sign stating they will avoid alcohol and/or drugs.
“It’s kind of a touchy subject, but to put it simply, they messed up,” said Ninilchik boys basketball head coach Nick Finley. “They did it on their own time, not at school or anything, but being 14, 15 and 16, it still wasn’t OK, so the plug was pulled on their season.”
Not all the team members got into trouble, but the entire team was affected since there were not enough players left to field the team. Finley, along with Rod Van Saun, the Lady Wolverines head coach, and Jeff Ambrosier, the school principal, took steps to ensure Smith, sophomore Lyndsay Appelhanz and freshman Melissa Clark could finish out their sports season. The three Lady Wolverines joined the boys team.
“We wanted them to be able to finish out their season, since there were still three regular games, plus the regional tournament,” Finley said. “Everyone talked, and then talked to people further up the food chain and we learned there was a waiver that could be signed to allow them to play on the boys’ team, since the school’s basketball team is not typically coed.”
With the proper paperwork in order, the girls moved over to the boys team, but they weren’t sure how they would be accepted.
“It was super scary at first,” Appelhanz said. “I was scared I was going to get crushed or something, and on my first shot I got totally stuffed, but then I realized that that was just what every other boy had gone through, too.”
Appelhanz said that, rather than capitalizing on her deficits, the boys helped her work on her weaknesses in a much more direct way than she was used to on the girls team.
“High school girls can be, well, high school girls, but the boys would just communicate if you needed to do something different or better. There was just so little drama. They were very direct,” she said.
While this may be the first time high school boys have ever been called good communicators, it wasn’t the only reason the girls liked playing on their team. The boys also brought a higher level of athleticism to the game, according to Appelhanz.
“They ran harder and passed faster, and there were more upperclassmen on the boys team to pull us all up. I think the experience made me a better player than if I had just stayed on the girls team. I feel I’m stronger with the ball now and protect it better, and this will make me a better player next year when I go back to playing with all girls,” she said.
Smith said she also benefited from playing on the boys team, more than if she had finished out the season with the girls team.
“It was a lot different. They worked at a higher pace, and practiced and played at a higher level, so it was excellent to be a part of that,” she said. “You had to learn to move the ball faster and be more aggressive on the court to keep up.”
Smith did more than just “keep up.” Despite only having a few practices with the boys, she got thrown into a game after one of her male counterparts rolled an ankle.
“I was nervous because I had only had a couple of practices, and they had different drills and plays. It was a completely different environment and I wasn’t sure I would know their routine,” she said.
Despite her nerves, according to coach Finley, Smith rose to the challenge.
“We were playing Seldovia, and she had good defense and moved the ball really well. She did such a good job, at the next game against Nanwalek we started her,” he said. “We also picked her as one of our 12 players for regionals, too.”
Appelhanz came in off the bench for a few games, too, and while Clark didn’t play as much, it is common for freshmen players of both genders to ride the pine a little more than their older teammates. Still, Finley said her role practicing with the team and cheering for them in games was essential to their overall success.
“It was quite an ending to the season,” Finley said. “I think some coaches out there might have thought bringing the girls over would distract the boys, or that the girls couldn’t rise up to the challenge, but they all did great. The boys actually seemed to play harder with the girls around, and the girls kept up every step of the way. They’ll have the confidence now that they can play with the boys, and I think that’ll really help them next year.”
Smith agreed the experience would benefit her next season, not just from having played with the boys, but from having the opportunity to work under several different coaching styles in one season.
“I’m really excited to bring what I learned to my team next year to push it to a new level,” she said.
Finley said that the experience hasn’t just been beneficial to the girls who got to play, but also to those who sat out the season. They, too, learned a valuable lesson from the decisions they made, he said.
“I think a bad thing turned into a good thing for the community,” he said. “Basketball is a big deal in these small communities, and I think the girls that were involved in this will realize what they lost out on, and will come back next year wanting to make it up to their team, the community, to everybody.”