Small but mighty: After competing with just a handful of players, Jemtegaard team honored for achievements

Coach says COVID-19 pandemic has impacted participation

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Jemtegaard Middle School seventh-grade girls basketball coach Eric Johnson (center) talks to his team during a game in December 2022. (Contributed photos courtesy of Jemtegaard Middle School)

Jemtegaard Middle School’s small-but-mighty seventh-grade girls basketball team is earning praise for its achievements during the first half of the 2022-23 school year.

The JMS squad played most of the 2022 season with just five players, putting it at a severe disadvantage against its opponents who could swap players in and out at will. But the Huskies not only found a way to survive, but succeed — winning six of their nine games.

“All year long we battled bruises and bugs, and it seemed almost every game one kid or another was either sick or too banged up to play,” Huskies coach Eric Johnson said. “But the ‘coalition of the willing’ suited up, five strong, played buzzer-to-buzzer and left it all on the court. The kids were always prepared, they were capable, and at the end of the day they were ready. They could have looked over to the other bench rotating fresh players in to keep the pressure up and mentally gave in, but instead they had a growth mindset, a “Yes, Coach’ attitude, and powered their way to a winning season.”

A Dec. 22 Facebook post on the JMS page says the team’s players — Addison Paul, Charley Johnson, Jaidyn McQueen, Lucy Minnis and Paige Wilkinson — “must be recognized and celebrated for their incredible achievements.”

“They stuck together for every practice and every game,” the post states. “This team epitomizes the Jemtegaard spirit. No matter the odds, they banded together and took on every challenge they faced with determination, perseverance, and as a team. They were small in numbers, but they were mighty.”

A sixth player, Cecilia Herring, played in four of the team’s games. (The team recruited a seventh player, Ambar Tellez, in the middle of the season, but she appeared in just one quarter of one game before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury.)

“Finally, after a few games, we found ourselves up to six,” Johnson said. “Still, at this point we had played a couple games with only five and often found ourselves with only four girls on the court as one was injured or fouled out. We won all of those early games, by the way. I remember the first time we had six girls and it felt so relieving. (I was like), ‘I can sub a kid out.'”

Despite having just five players, the team nursed a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter of its game against Woodland Middle School on Wednesday, Dec. 7.

“We were still out there competing,” Johnson said. “I could tell (the opposing coach) was starting to sweat a bit. She put up a full-court press the whole game. I don’t blame her; likely she had assumed they’d press for a few minutes, run up a comfortable lead and then sit back and play half-court defense. But what this most excellent coach did not realize is that we hadn’t shown up five strong (just) to play basketball — we’d come to compete and to win.”

The Huskies got into some foul trouble, however, and couldn’t hold their lead, ultimately losing . the game by three points. But the result on the scoreboard didn’t matter much at the end of the night. That contest served as a “microcosm” of the team’s season, according to Johnson.

“During that game, for various reasons we played a few times with only four athletes,” he said. “Despite the pressure, those girls never blinked. They just competed, heads-up, face to the wind, eyes on the prize. We took an excellent basketball team all the way down to the wire. By the end of that game, those girls were physically exhausted, and yet they still hustled down the court. By the final buzzer, we left it all on the court.”

COVID-19 pandemic impacted participation

In previous years, JMS enjoyed large turnouts for most of its athletic teams, but the COVID-19 pandemic and several other recent trends have caused interest in the school’s girls basketball program to steadily decline, according to Johnson.

“The year the pandemic hit we had over 46 girls in the JMS basketball program,” Johnson said. “Last year, we were lucky to cobble together three teams and had less than 30 kids total. This year, come tryouts there were about 17 eighth-grade girls and only nine seventh-graders who showed up. Of that group, several were simply testing the waters and did not show up the next day. Despite constant in-school promotions, kids simply did not show up. Many told me they were sticking with one sport year-round, or did not want to play if there wasn’t going to be a junior varsity team.

“When sports were reinstated, one of the more pronounced effects was a lack of ‘non-club’ students coming out for girls basketball,” Johnson said. “There seems to be less of a ‘what the heck, I’m going to go out for basketball’ can-do attitude. Also, with the advent of additional clubs and opportunities for kids to play year-round soccer, volleyball, etcetera, the drain has been profound.”

Johnson struggled at first to come to terms with the situation, but eventually found a way to change his mindset and embrace the challenge in front of him.

“As I lamented the current situation, one of my co-teachers inspired me with a comment coined by my principal years ago when he took the job — ‘Dude, sometimes you simply need to go with ‘the coalition of the willing’ and play with the players you have,'” Johnson said. “He was right. I needed a growth mindset and the attitude that I was fortunate. I had five, maybe six, players that were down to play basketball, (so) I pushed my chips in, too.”

After Johnson “pushed his chips in,” he discovered some good things about coaching such a small team.

“As our team was so small, we were able to have extremely focused and detailed practices,” he said. “(At one) point I joked, ‘It’s like these kids have personal trainers.'”

With no opportunities to substitute players in and out of games, Johnson had to get creative to find ways to provide the girls with needed breathers from time to time.

“Often people think of subbing out as the ability to give a kid some rest or give the offense or defense a different look or spark,” he said. “But just as often, you just need to get an athlete on the bench to go over something you as a coach are seeing on the court, an adjustment they need to make, etc. When you are playing with five, timeouts become sacred ‘sit down and rest’ cards you play strategically to keep your kids rested.”

Johnson received some much-appreciated help from volunteer assistant coach Michael Minnis.

“He did a spectacular job ‘coaching them up’ and keeping them focused on working through the myriad challenges such a small team faces,” Johnson said.