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Transitional period for girls basketball

By Tony Hooker
The Villa Grove Girls basketball team is undergoing a significant period of transition, as several factors, including the dissolution of the co-op and the decision of several good athletes not to play, has resulted in the cancellation of the varsity season for 2022-23. I recently caught up with Girl’s coach Jeff Carleton to talk about the season, and how he and his assistant, Roger Kammin, will look to find personal victories for their athletes in a trying season. 

Coach let’s start with the bad. There will be no varsity season this year?

No, and it’s unfortunate because there’s the making of a decent varsity team out there right now, but with injuries and the uncertainty of when they’ll be able to come back, we had to shut it down. We were supposed to play Unity and Tri-Valley and PBL and Monticello. I don’t like putting kids in situations where they’ll fail, because if you do that, then they’ll be embarrassed and frustrated and then they start quitting and then everything’s gone. We can’t do that. If we’re going to build what needs to be built here, then we’ve got to do whatever’s best for the kids. It’s all about the kids getting better. We’ve got kids out there who have never played before and the first day we walked in here, they couldn’t get the ball to the basket from the free-throw line. Now they’re shooting them right and they’re making them. They’ve come a long way in two weeks.

The fact that you have such a short pre-season hurts also, right?

Two weeks is not enough. The IHSA has things so close together that the kids don’t get a break. When you’re in a small school and you’re an athlete, you have to play everything. That’s a thing that we have going on here, now. There are female athletes galore in this school, and they’re not playing basketball. 

Year-round specialization has hurt basketball. I talked to a coach at Centennial where I used to be, and they’re having trouble getting kids to go out, that’s a school of 1800 people. Playing JV only, we’re having trouble getting very many games because other schools don’t have enough kids to play both varsity and JV. Covid killed it too. They found other things to do. They found jobs and they like the money and they figured out that they didn’t need this, it’s a struggle but especially in a small school if you’re an athlete you have to do everything to keep the school going. It’s a girls’ basketball problem right now, but in the future, I can see it being a football problem, a softball problem. What are you going to do if you have 15 kids go out for football? 

How many players are on the team?

When everyone is healthy and eligible, we have nine players, total.

And of those nine, four have never played the sport?

Four have never played the sport. One is a senior who hasn’t played. I have another who played in junior high but didn’t come out for high school until this year. I have three players, two seniors and one sophomore, who have played all the way through junior high, and one of the seniors is injured.

It’s probably safe to say that in 26 years as a coach, you’ve never faced anything like this, right?

Never. Ever. I’ve had lower-skilled teams, but I’m never seen this. It’s a challenge for Coach and me. He’s been at it longer than I have, for 30 years. 

Do you find satisfaction in coaching these girls up?

I do! Coach Kammin and I were actually talking about that today on the way down to practice. It’s actually put a lot of the fun back into coaching because I see the smiles on the faces of the girls out there. We do a drill at the end of practice where we put everyone on the line and one person comes out and shoots free throws. They shoot two shots, and our out of basketball conditioning comes from whether you can make free throws or not. If they make the first free throw, nobody goes anywhere, but it they miss the first one, everybody except the shooter does two down and backs. Our conditioning comes from that, and I put a couple of the first-year kids on the line, everyone is cheering and supporting them, and they swished two in a row. I mean they did it perfectly.  Two weeks ago, they couldn’t get it to the basket. It gives us a lot of satisfaction to see the smiles on their faces, to see them trying and see them learning. We’ve gotten better every day. I’ve had a lot of talented teams who you couldn’t say that about. They didn’t get better every day. These kids are so coachable. They’re awesome kids. It’s just unfortunate that we don’t have enough to have a varsity and a JV team so that everyone could get experience. I think there’s a strong eighth-grade class so hopefully, the numbers will start coming up. Hopefully, some of the kids who played all through junior high will miss it and will consider coming out next year. Then we can go on from there.

What would you consider to be a successful season?

To play our best game, the last game we play. To get better every day, whether that be practice or that be games, and I want them to have fun. I want them to be kids. Of course, winning is fun, but I want them to go out there and have fun. I don’t have a problem in the world with getting beat by 20 points if they know that they went out there and did the absolute best that they could and they’re happy and smiling and not paying attention to the scoreboard. If that happens, we’re going to be ok. 

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