Girls team achieves small wins out of big losses

It’s been a tough season for the girls basketball team at Don Bosco Charter High School.

How tough? When Don Bosco’s girls score, fans for the other team cheer.

They’ve been pummeled every game this season. The closest was a 42-point loss. Hickman Mills beat them by 120. Through five games, the composite score for the year: 394-17.

Whuppings like that would make a lot of players run for the bus – at halftime. But these Don Bosco girls have guts. They come to play. They know what’s likely to happen, and they show up anyway.

They know they are different from other schools and other teams. The players attend Kansas City’s only charter alternative high school for a variety of disciplinary reasons. Some also live on their own. There are mothers on the team. They work jobs.

Basketball, though, brings a sense of normalcy back into their lives.

They put on uniforms and ride the bus to other schools, talking and laughing all the way. Regardless of what brought them to this place in their young lives, for a few hours on game day, they are just teenage girls.

“We run up and down the court and we don’t quit no matter what happens out there,” said Chloe Woods, a senior. “When we score or something else good happens, the other team says, ‘Good hustle, way to go.’

“That makes us feel good.”

Urging on the Wolves is first-year coach Stephanie Worthy, a former two-time NAIA All-American player, who coached 10 years at Lincoln College Prep and Center High.

“Generally, when you coach, you get some athletes … you get some girls who are academically and athletically prepared to play,” Worthy said.

She would love to get them a win, and last Tuesday’s game figured to be as good a chance as any. The other team, the J.C. Harmon Hawks, ran on to the court with just five players.

The Wolves were pumped. They broke the pre-tip huddle with – “One-two-three-focus!”

Then junior center Vanessa Pickens slapped the jump to a teammate who dribbled to the top of the key, found herself open and let fly a jumper …

Air ball.

Because of personal and safety reasons, the players, coach and parents declined to speak specifically for this story about what brought the girls to Don Bosco.

But it can’t be easy playing basketball there.

The girls often practice while the boys’ team takes up the other end of the gym.

The boys have won some games, and their star guard, averaging over 40 points a game, is being recruited by major colleges.

Morning announcements over the public-address system laud the boys’ victories to classroom cheers while the girl players sit quietly, as if grateful for the lack of recognition.

“But we will never give up and we always try our best – that’s what we do,” said Kristal Jones, 17, a junior point guard. “I think we all thought it would be different, but …”

The approaching season started with optimism at Don Bosco, a school of about 340 students on Brooklyn just off Independence Avenue east of downtown.

The charter school was started in 2000 to help youngsters who have had difficulties in traditional schools.

Still, 18 girls signed up to play and were told to return a parent’s permission slip and a completed physical form when practice started Nov. 1.

“Not a one showed up with the physical,” Worthy said.

A clinic later volunteered to do the exams for free.

The next – and biggest and recurring – problem has been getting the girls to attend practice regularly. Some work jobs after school or tend to family situations. And the girls often have trouble getting a ride home after practice.

Despite the team’s lack of success on the court, Christina Vassie, mother of Ch’Niece Johnson, says the girls are devoted to the team.

“Anyway, Ch’Niece sure gets upset when they lose that bad, and she’s wore out when she comes from a game or practice,” Vassie said. “I know they want to win … I don’t know if they will.

Nobody wants to blame Worthy.

“There are factors beyond her control,” Principal Bernadette Barber said. “She knows the game.”

Worthy grew up in Alabama and came to Kansas City to play basketball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, winning NAIA All-American honors in 1985 and 1986. And she has a basketball pedigree; her cousin is former Los Angeles Lakers great James Worthy.

Watching her team lose by 72-2, 82-3 and 70-4 has been grueling.

“The other coaches have been real good to me, but sure, I’ve wanted to hide under the bleachers,” she said. “But those are my girls out there. And I know what we’re doing is good for them.”

Then she held her hand up.

“OK, OK … I know it’s hard to accept that getting beat that bad is good for anyone. But I need to believe they are learning something about responsibility and commitment. This team is keeping them off the streets. They’re not doing drugs … they’re not getting pregnant.

“The Lord has given me a voice to speak to these girls. And you know what? I think they like me. When we were getting beat by Hickman Mills 126-6, nobody walked off the court and nobody cussed me out.”

That first air ball pretty much set the tone for Tuesday’s game against Harmon.

Don Bosco was down 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. They traveled, they fouled, they threw the ball away. One pass would have hit a Harmon cheerleader in the head had she not ducked.

Harmon stretched the lead in the second quarter with lots of layups.

“Number 10 is open!” Worthy yelled from the bench. “No. 15 is open! Chloe, we’re playing zone!”

The team started the third quarter with lots of energy. They fought and scrapped. With 5:02 left, Maya Jackson came off rubbing her jaw.\

Finally, at the third-quarter buzzer, Erica Lora got the ball down low and put in a bucket for Don Bosco.

A continuously running clock provided mercy in the fourth. Final score: Harmon 44, Don Bosco 2.

In the locker room after the game, Worthy praised her team for playing hard and getting more rebounds and taking more shots than usual.

“This is a game we could have won,” she told them.

Then, after promising to show up for practice the next day, the girls from Don Bosco walked out into the cold night and climbed onto the bus for the ride back home.

“They know they’re not athletes,” Worthy said.

“But they keep coming back. If being on this team helps them … then we’re going to keep it going.”