On the court domination. Off the court inspiration.
VANDALIA – Practice is nearing its end, which means it’s time to scrimmage for Vandalia’s third grade girl’s basketball team.
One coach starts the game with a traditional tip-off, and moments later Van-Far’s Elliott Utterback steals the ball and makes a transition layup. Moments later, she steals it again, only, this time, she elects to pass off the open shot for the assist to one of her teammates.
Unselfish play and team basketball are focal points for this team—a rare quality for a group of third graders to have. However, these girls have somebody they’ve learned from.
“She doesn’t just work for herself, she works for the whole team to win,” Elliott Utterback said. “She does really great moves and that inspires me to do those moves”
Just 81 short miles from Van-Far High School is Mizzou Arena—home to Sophie Cunningham and the Missouri Women’s Basketball team. On Jan. 21, Missouri faced off against Arkansas at home.
“Some of our girls decided to go to one of the MU Women’s Basketball Game,” Van-Far’s third grade team’s Coach Sam Utterback said. “I honestly think that them watching the MU Women’s Basketball team play last year really changed how they play the game.”
Just before the game, Cunningham caught the wide eyes of a few special fans.
“We had a shirt that said Sophie’s my home girl,” Mylee Keler, another player on Vandalia’s team, said.
Sophie greeted her fans, and then went off for 22 points over the Razorbacks. Despite her performance on the court, she didn’t forget about her special fans.
“The fact that they did this is so fun and it get’s me kind of emotional, because this used to be [my sister and me].” Sophie Cunningham said. “Just the fact that people are wearing my name with my number, it just means so much and it’s very humbling.”
Looking up to a player is certainly not anything new for young athletes. Nevertheless, the Missouri women are offering something special in both a coach and a mother’s eyes.
“My daughter noticed Sophie on the bench and she said ‘look how loud she is,’ and so, you know, they pick up on that,” Sam Utterback said. “I think it’s great that these girls have role models that are female athletes in a community that they can look up to.”
The Missouri Women’s basketball team had their season ended short last weekend, March 17, in California against Florida Gulf Coast University in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Many felt this shined a disappointing light on a team with great potential.
The Vandalia girls would beg to differ.
A single game home attendance record was broken, 24 games were won and a community was inspired. The Vandalia girls lost one game this season, and their strong play was rooted in the Tigers that inspired them.