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Girls join tiny parochial school basketball team

January 28, 2007|From the Associated Press

JUNCTION CITY, KAN. — A year ago, Autum Conley was a cheerleader for the St. Xavier High School boys basketball team.

Now she's the starting point guard.

Low enrollment at the tiny school forced the cancellation of football this season. Same for girls basketball. That left the aging parochial school in the heart of Kansas with only boys basketball, or something like it.

"We had two girls who definitely wanted to play," says the Rev. Al Brungardt, the parish priest for nearly a decade. "We thought, let's make it a go as a coed team."

Now, Conley and teammate Allison Coy are the best two players on a team of five, adapting to men's basketball and bravely playing a full boys schedule. The girls, both sophomores, realize that there will be no fairy tale endings this season.

But for them, winning is just a matter of playing.

"It's difficult to adjust to boys and girls," says 16-year-old Conley, who played on the girls team last year. "It's a big jump in level of competition."

And the results, so far, have been predictable.

In the season opener against Centre High, a rural team on which most of the kids are from a town called Lost Springs, St. Xavier trailed 38-0 after one quarter and lost 103-24. Against Elyria, a small Christian school, the score was 61-21. St. Xavier even lost to a school called Hope, 74-16.

"Even though you think you'll get used to it, you don't ever get used to going out and everybody thinking you're going to [stink]," says the 15-year-old Coy, the team's leading scorer. "You don't get used to it, but we keep trying."

That's all Coach Mark Brown can ask.

He's been teaching basketball all his life, a self-proclaimed gym rat who makes the hour commute from Topeka each day. For years he coached some of the top AAU teams in the country, including one featuring three future WNBA stars.

He was hired to teach physical education and coach girls basketball this year. Now he leads a boys team with no substitutes, no chance to win -- but no desire to quit.

"They haven't complained, they haven't argued, nothing," Brown says. "They ain't going to quit, and they know I'm not going to quit on them."

There are only 22 kids at St. Xavier in grades 9-12, a number that fluctuates almost daily with the ebb of military families at the nearby Fort Riley Army post. The once-proud boys basketball team has won three league titles in the last five years, but already that seems like decades ago.

Times are changing. In the 1970s, the entire school was Catholic.

Now, 45% is Protestant. Sixty percent are students with a parent in the Army, making the school's very future uncertain, let alone its sports programs.

"There is a frustration as a parent," says Kim Coy, Allison's mother and one of three generations in her family to attend St. Xavier.

"We have enough girls to fill a team, but a lot of teenagers today don't want to put in the practice or they're more interested in getting a job."

The school's best player figured he knew more than the coach and quit, Brown says. Another became ineligible. The three boys who were left, all new to the school this year, barely had played before.

The team doesn't have enough bodies to scrimmage in practice, so Brown says they run. A lot. The rest of the time is spent on basics: blocking out, setting screens, getting low on defense.

Heaven forbid someone gets sick or fouls out of a game.

"We play to win, we don't expect to win," says 14-year-old Aaron Baker. "We just go out there, we try and we have fun."

But how much fun can it be with a couple of girls for teammates and the inevitable, often embarrassing outcome?

"I don't mind, as long as we had a team," says 16-year-old Caleb Hammond. "It might work better if we had an all-boys team, but whatever works."

Lori Brown of the National Federation of State High School Associations says her organization is not aware of another situation similar to that at St. Xavier, although she says it would be handled on a state-by-state basis.

The Kansas High School Activities Assn. had to sweep the dust off an old rule just to allow St. Xavier to play this year. But even in the state's most sparsely populated areas, the rule hasn't been applied at the varsity level in decades, if ever.

The kids don't care, and Brungardt doesn't either. He calls the team "an inspiration."

"They're showing we're not giving up," he says, using the team as a metaphor for the struggling school. "I think for a lot of adults, that says an awful lot to them. We're finding example in our youth."

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