When the junior high girls basketball season started, the Springfield seventh-grade program had not won since Jan. 17, 2013. That’s a span of 28 games, including two straight 0-13 seasons.
Why was this season going to be different?
“Because our team has confidence,” said team member Sultania Mays. “When we’re down we pick each other up. We’re not too cocky but we have a good attitude. There’s a lot of good things about this team.”
Their 16 wins are just a few of them.
While that undefeated regular season in the Greater Western Ohio Conference’s North Division is a spectacular turnaround, many of Springfield’s best victories have come off the court with community service and camaraderie.
Girls basketball in Springfield has struggled since the days Amanda Jackson dominated. So it’s fitting Jackson, the team’s first-year coach, and her talented group of seventh-graders have helped restore the roar for the Wildcats.
Jackson was asked by high school varsity coach Darris Gattis to coach the seventh-graders. Jackson, who still aspires to continue her professional career overseas, agreed after giving it some thought.
“I felt it was my diligence to step up,” Jackson said, “and make sure they have a good role model and coach to help them continue to develop their skills.”
When the players arrived at the first practice most knew who Jackson was. She’s the all-time leading scorer at both Springfield High and Miami University. She attended training camp with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. She’s played professionally in Armenia, Israel, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
And it started in Springfield. Jackson honed her skills playing on her favorite court at Rose Street Park. She knew she’d gone big time when as a fifth-grader at Emerson Elementary she was picked to play before school started.
“That meant you were really good,” Jackson said. “It took until fifth grade before someone would pick a girl. … When I got to play before school started, I was like, ‘Yeah it’s on now.’ ”
The Wildcats carry that same attitude into the GWOC tournament. Springfield, which earned a first-round bye, plays Saturday with the opponent and site to be determined.
“We have pressure because Springfield girls basketball has been dead for a long time,” Mays said. “Now we’re about to bring it back. We’re about to bring the trophy home.”
A GWOC championship seemed unthinkable prior to this season. But Jackson helped the team’s veterans mesh with the newcomers to form the wildly successful Wildcats.
“She’s helped us a lot,” Mickayla Perdue said. “At the beginning a lot of people had never played basketball before. But with all our practices it’s been getting better.”
Added teammate Abbigail Peterson: “It was tough. When she saw we had it in us she started pushing us harder and harder to get better. Since we started pushing ourselves we started winning.”
And they haven’t stopped, on or off the court.
Jackson is president of Become One, a non-profit charitable organization in Springfield. Among other programs, the organization runs the Southwest Titans youth basketball program and offers Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. The middle school teams — along with Springfield’s varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams — have participated in serving holiday meals to those in need and marching in peace walks.
“It’s great when you see young people in the community doing something positive,” said Jackson, who also works at Interfaith Hospitality Network and is a residential leader at Oesterlen Services for Youth. “Our city has kind of been plagued with insane violence and stupidity.
“When I came up I don’t remember too many role models that I could look up to. Now that I am here, I try to be that outlet. I try to be that voice, that role model for these kids to show them there is hope. There is promise when you’re doing the right things.”
The potential the seventh-graders possess has Springfield basketball fans excited. To help it develop, the plan is for Jackson to follow the group into high school. An offer to play professionally overseas could complicate that.
“I take it year by year. This year this is what I’m doing,” Jackson said. “I’m just living in the moment. It’s a joy and definitely a blessing.”
Two things have made Jackson’s coaching job easier: teamwork and togetherness.
The seventh-graders love to hang out with each other equally as much as they love to practice. It’s that cohesion that led them to the GWOC regular season championship by two games over Wayne and three games over Troy and Northmont.
“We didn’t really expect (the GWOC success) because we have a lot of new people on our team,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of teams that have played together for a long time. We just became a team (this season).”
“We all feel like we’re sisters to each other,” Mays said. “We all have different personalities and when we come together we just make each other laugh. We can tell each other anything. It’s not just a team. It’s a friendship, too.”