By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
This past spring marked the completion of an incredible journey for the Eaton Rapids (MI) Greyhound varsity girls basketball team.
Successful championship runs in several American Youth Basketball Tour (AYBT) events culminated this past winter in a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Class B state hoops title.
And the combination of AYBT events and a whole lot of hard work (and good fortune) during the regular season proved to be the difference.’
“AYBT has played a major roll for the program,” said current Eaton Rapids Athletic Director, and AYBT coach, Jeff Dassance. “As a feeder to the high school, the youth experience through AYBT greatly benefitted the girls basketball team. From 5th-8th grade, the core group of girls played in at least three AYBT events.”
The list of accomplishments certainly is impressive, including five-straight division titles (2009-2013) at the annual AYBT May Madness District Series Event (DSE) in Mt. Pleasant and three-straight (2010-2012) AYBT division national titles in Fort Wayne.
Add to that the Lady Hounds’ 51-38 victory over Grand Rapids South Christian for the 2014 Class B state title, which capped an outstanding 23-5 season, and it all amounts to one incredible run.
In fact, the state championship did a lot to erase several years of Greyhound disappointment. As successful as the team has been in the summer and regular season (53-13 across three years), the squad, which is coached by Willis Whitmyer, just couldn’t seem to put it all together in the postseason.
First-round district tournament losses in 2011 and 2013, and a loss in the regional semifinal in 2012, gave the team a lot to overcome entering the 2014 postseason.
Dassance thinks that the team’s tight bond was a major factor in past and more recent successes.
“I believe their most recent success comes from their lasting bond that this group has established with each other. Most of these girls have been playing together since 4th grade and have experienced a lot of success since about 6th grade and on.”
Looking more closely, though, it is clear that it was the disappointments during the 2014 regular season that fueled the team’s playoff run.
“The most recent season (had some) ups and downs,” Dassance explained. “The five losses was the most they had experienced since five (of the girls) were brought up on varsity as freshmen. These losses meant that they wouldn’t win the league championship.”
But redemption was swift in the district final game, as the Greyhounds dismantled Capital Area Activities Conference champion Jackson Northwest 45-23, avenging a 33-30 regular season loss to the Mounties and helping set the tone for the rest of Eaton Rapids’ tourney run.
A string of double-digit wins followed, climaxing with the decisive win in the title game.
“Obviously, this season is the crown jewel of their high school careers,” said Dassance, who went on to mention it is the school’s first-ever girls basketball state title.
Dassance got involved with coaching in 1988, while still at Olivet College. From 1991-99, he was a math/science teach and coach (JV girls basketball, freshmen boys basketball, and varsity baseball) at Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills.
An Eaton Rapids grad, Dassance was very happy to learn that he would be returning to his alma mater in 1999 to become the Assistant Principal and have the opportunity to raise his children in the same town he grew up in.
Soon enough, he was coaching the girls who would go on to win the state title when they were just five-and six-year olds. To bolster the Greyhounds’ existing summer program, AYBT events were added to the slate.
Along the way – not only has Dassance coached the title team, which included his twin daughters, he has coached his older son, who is now a seventh grader, for three years (including an AYBT National Championship in 2011), and now coaches is youngest son, who is in fifth grade – Dassance has been impressed with the way the AYBT organization plays to each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and provides a great payoff for teams who do well.
“AYBT to me is the best option for several reasons,” he said. “The system of rating yourself and determining what level is best for your team is how it should be. AYBT offers several events that are both near and far. And, the Nationals at Spiece Fieldhouse is an awesome event.”
As the kids get older, they still gravitate toward AYBT events.
“Through the years, my girls team has played in other tournaments and AAU events – they also experienced success there,” he said. “But AYBT was what we always came back to, even in their high school years. Coach Whitmyer and I were able to work together so that the girls could go to Nationals each summer, after their high school team camp and leagues.”
Dassance said the top tier competition at AYBT events does a good job of exposing his team to a diverse set of looks and paces.
“As a community based school,” he explained, “it was an excellent option for us to play other community based schools as well as face some of the better competition that some of the All-Star or elite travel teams presented. The chance to face the different tempos, defenses, offenses, etc. was an invaluable experience that benefitted the girls.
“The court time against quality opponents is a great asset,” he continued. “The opportunity to play against different schools of different sizes is also great. Playing AYBT at the ‘highly skilled’ level helped – along with their high school summer programs – prepare these girls for all sorts of offenses, defenses, presses, styles of play, etc.
“They felt confident against anything that they faced in the tournament run because they had faced it all before through out the years in AYBT and high school team camps,” he concluded.
And it wasn’t always about their time on the court.
“AYBT not only helped to build their basketball skills,” said Dassance, “but the trips to tournaments helped to build friendships and create good times that the girls will always remember and cherish.
“AYBT in no way replaces the daily grind of hard work and dedication during the season,” he said. “But it certainly assists in building confidence, cohesion, and teamwork.”
On the court, in the locker room, or away from the sport, even, AYBT is particularly good at helping form bounds that his players carry through graduation.
“AYBT gives community schools a chance to compete, grow and develop into a team on and off the courts,” said Dassance. “The camping, hotels and meals out together – team building stuff – is so important, especially at a younger age.
He concluded, “Once the players form that bond through fun, commitment and success, it’s hard to break. Of the eight senior girls on this year’s (state title team), six of them will be on scholarship at the college level…but only 1 in basketball.”
Then he added, “They wanted to play together for each other and the school like they had since third grade.”
The American Youth Basketball Tour is America’s foremost leader in team basketball skills and character development. For more information on AYBT district tournaments and events, head over to http://aybtour.com/.