Even though she may not get much playing time on Robinson's varsity basketball team, 14-year-old Cassie Hammond knows one thing: She survived the cut.
Hammond and 70 other girls spent three days during open tryouts last week grunting, groaning and willing their aching bodies through countless drills for a chance to show Coach Dwight Trimmer that they belong on the Rams, traditionally one of the strongest programs in the area. Roster spots are even more precious at Robinson, which returns all five starters from last year's team that lost to West Springfield in the Virginia AAA final.
The scene at the Fairfax school was being played out in gyms all across the Washington region and country, where aspiring players know that what lies in the balance of making teams is exposure to college scouts and, of course, the possibility of landing a college scholarship.
"It's always difficult [to make cuts]. Every coach around the county has difficulty doing this," Trimmer said. "You know the kids. You know how hard they work."
At Robinson, the stakes seem even greater. Young athletes such as Hammond marvel at the school's rich athletic tradition, which has brought 24 overall state championships--13 in the past nine years alone--since the school opened in 1971.
The girls basketball team is emblematic of Robinson's success in sports. The Rams are ranked 19th this year in USA Today's national poll of the top 25 girls basketball teams, and are a favorite to return to the state championship. Trimmer's roster already is crowded with seven returning seniors and a cadre of proven juniors who will be moved up from the junior varsity team.
"If you make the Robinson team, you're pretty much good," said senior forward Myriam Baccouche, the team's leading scorer last season with an average of 14.7 points per game. ". . . Anybody here can be a stud on this team."
Over the three days, the girls were grouped into three teams--freshmen, junior varsity and varsity--and played on three separate courts inside the cavernous Robinson gym. Each court was watched by the coach of those teams--Trimmer for varsity; Melissa Gishe for junior varsity; and Teddy Whitney for freshmen.
"Some kids come out, give it a try and see they're in over their heads," Trimmer said. "It takes a lot of commitment. We're talking through the heart of the school year, six nights a week, Monday through Saturday, including over the holidays, we practice. The kids that do it are really committed to it."
Could they complete the two-mile run in the allotted time? Were they good enough to run the complicated triangle offense made famous by the NBA's Chicago Bulls? Did they have the desire or stamina to survive a six-day-a-week practice schedule and 31-game season?
There was an exchange student from Germany, a senior transfer from Fort Knox, Ky., soccer players, field hockey players and volleyball players. Some girls came with polished games, honed over the years by playing on youth clubs and AAU teams and attending summer camps and clinics. Others had limited experience, but showed signs of being natural athletes.
A Matter of Priorities
During a water break on the last day of tryouts, as she sat on the bench, Hammond's face is reddened with emotion. She knows she has played well during the three-day tryouts, but is aware that Trimmer is considering putting her on the junior varsity. Even faced with the prospect of little playing time, and after tearful discussions between coach, player and parents, Trimmer decides to put her on the varsity.
Hammond is willing to forgo the experience--and more playing time--she would get on the junior varsity squad to become what is the equivalent of a practice squad player on a college football team. "I think I can improve better playing with better players," said Hammond, a 5-foot-10 freshman forward-center. "I know that I won't play that much, but I think I can improve in practice with them."
Trimmer said he relented to the wishes of Hammond's parents because he didn't disagree with them that their daughter was talented enough to play on the varsity. However, he was concerned about how fast she would develop because of the lack of actual playing time she would receive on varsity.
But Hammond's goal is to eventually gain a Division I college basketball scholarship, and her parents are well aware of the weight that playing on a possible state championship team would carry with scouts. "She can learn so much from these girls who have the experience. She'll be challenged," said her mother, Mary Margaret Hammond. "She's going to learn the speed, intensity and aggressiveness she needs to play the varsity level."
Sometimes, for those who make a talented squad such as the one at Robinson, it means checking the ego at the gym door and performing as a role player--for instance, a defensive stopper, skilled rebounder or three-point specialist. It is a lesson that Nicole Feder, a 5-10 senior, had to learn early in her career often playing behind the Rams' Baccouche. Feder had the third-highest number of assists on the team last year with 88 and made 53.5 percent of her three-point shots (31 for 58).
"What we've taught Nicole, and she's learned it," said Feder's mother, Michelle, "[is] when you're not playing, watch the court. With every minute you have on the court, take it to the max. Pedal to the floor. And that's how she has made her impact. She's had to make her impact over the best of the best."
Trimmer makes the cuts himself after practice. If he calls a player into his office, he does so to tell them they haven't made the cut. The girls who do not get called in are on the team.
The meeting can be a rude awakening--an evaluation that is not based solely on talent, but factors in instincts, heart and desire.
Claudia Drescher was one of those players who had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to try out. The 16-year-old exchange student from Germany quickly was placed with the junior varsity prospects, but had trouble keeping up. She was confounded by the brutal pace of the scrimmages and overwhelmed by monotonous drills.
Still, she wasn't cut until the final day. "I had no idea how competitive it was until I tried out," Drescher said. "We don't have teams like this back home. There was a lot of running. It was hard."
For Sara Rechnitzer, a 14-year-old freshman who also runs on the school's cross-country team, basketball doesn't necessarily come naturally. Standing at about 5-3, Rechnitzer is shorter than most of her opponents, and occasionally still dribbles with her head down.
She has been attending girls basketball games at Robinson with her father since she was 10 years old. "She's been with us since the fourth grade," Trimmer said. "She's made herself into a player because she's not a really great athlete. But she's really worked hard at it."
"I really didn't have any aspirations when I started to come to the games," said Rechnitzer, who made the junior varsity squad. "But it means a lot to make the team because I just want to play basketball in high school."
While freshman Charity Wilson had similar aspirations, she failed to make her class's team. "As long as I know that I tried to the best of my ability, then I'm fine," said Wilson, whose words were belied by the disappointment on her face. "They said I have a lot of potential and that's what made it so hard. It's just that others' skills were better than mine. It's very hard not being on a winning team. But I'll never give up."
Seeking a Time Share
The competition was particularly fierce on the varsity floor with so many players vying for so few openings--three to be exact. As if the competitive edge couldn't be heightened, some treated the workouts as a chance to make an impression on Trimmer for playing time.
With such a deep squad of veteran players, Trimmer faces the daunting task of finding the right ingredients to improve upon an already well-balanced team, which went 25-6 last season, that could shoot, penetrate, rebound and apply stifling pressure defense. The newest players will vie for playing time with starters, such as 5-10 senior Baccouche, 5-6 senior point guard Ashana Cowans, 5-10 senior forward Lesley Harvey and 6-0 senior center Katie Jarvis.
"The people who made this team, besides the ones that we had last year, have worked really hard," team captain Cowans said. "I give them credit because right now, it's one of the hardest times to make this team. We have a lot of talent."
Secrett Stubblefield, a transfer student from Fort Knox, got her first glimpse of the talent among the Robinson players when she played fall basketball with some of them. Even though she felt she had played well enough to earn a roster spot, Stubblefield knew the tryouts would be her chance to show Trimmer that she deserved some playing time.
She excelled in the sprint drills, using her speed to finish ahead of her teammates. She proved a quick study, displaying a knack for learning the defensive and offensive sets Trimmer put the team through.
"My mom told me don't come down here with a big head," said Stubblefield, who plays shooting guard and small forward. "She said this team had gotten all the way to the state championship game last year. And guess what? They did it without me. She told me that I had to know that [my teammates] are my asset. . . . So it doesn't matter to me if I never get into the game or if I play the whole game as long as we win."
That attitude is shared by senior Darcy Kohn, the captain of last season's junior varsity team, who was hobbled most of the tryouts by compressed veins that constrict the flow of blood in her right leg. Tears rolled down her face from the constant pounding her legs took from the running. Still, she wouldn't let it force her out of practice until late in the final day of tryouts.
Trimmer named her to the team, though coach and player know she will not play a lot. She is there for her leadership and dedication, and she understands her role.
"I felt like I had to give it everything I had, cause if not, then I won't get another chance," she said. "I think our team is going to do really well this year. I want to be part of that. I just like being a part of the team."