What started as an internal challenge for the League City Sharks third- and fourth-grade girls basketball team turned into an opportunity to prove outside doubters wrong, as they entered a YMCA league consisting of all boys teams and beat them all en route to claiming a league title.
“Usually boys think they’re going to win, so we wanted to go out and prove them wrong,” Sharks team member Macey DeGroot said. “We knew we could do it.”
Coaches Travis Golden and Chris Cole, who helped form the Sharks two years ago, knew before league play began they had a good group of girls and wanted to give them a level of competition that would push them to be their best.
“Going into it, we just wanted our girls to be challenged more,” coach Golden said. “We didn’t think they were going to get challenged enough in some of the girls leagues, so we wanted to challenge them with the speed of the boys and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t go into it thinking we were going to win; we just went into it for the challenge of playing against the boys.”
Coach Golden said there were actually more nerves among the girls getting to know new faces when the team expanded from five players to nine before the YMCA season started than there were when it came to the notion of being girls playing against boys.
“How great we all work together,” Sharks team member Jayden Golden said about what gave the girls the confidence to beat the boys.
As the Sharks recorded win after win, the fans of their opponents were in disbelief. They thought surely the girls were older than they claimed or were ringers from an AAU team, coach Golden said.
“There were some disgruntled parents,” coach Golden said. “We’d hear things like, ‘This is a fifth- and sixth-grade girls team; this can’t be a third- and fourth-grade girls team.’ One parent said about one of the girls, ‘I think she drove her own car here,’ because she was taller than some of the boys.
“Some of those parents were upset, and didn’t understand that we were the same age level and were just trying to challenge ourselves,” coach Golden added. “They’re just a really good group of girls who work hard and play well together.”
Throughout the season, the Sharks carried the memory of their former teammate and founding team member Kelsey Nalepa in their thoughts and with her initials on their team shirts. The Sharks also held their practices as the school, Ross Elementary, Nalepa attended and where her mother still teaches. Nalepa died April 8, 2017 from injuries suffered in a three-car collision on West Main Street near the school.
After going undefeated through six regular season games and a pair of play-in games, the Sharks entered a regional tournament with the champions from the YMCA leagues of Clear Lake, Pearland and Alvin — also all boys teams.
Nalepa’s birthday passed during the week of the regional tournament.
“We posted a picture wishing her a happy birthday and asked her to look down on us for the weekend,” coach Golden said.
The Sharks played the first game of the regional tournament, and once again won. They then watched as their eventual opponent in the championship game walloped a solid Clear Lake team.
“We were going into that one saying, ‘This is what we came for. This is the challenge we wanted,’” coach Golden said.
The League City girls got off to a slow start against the Pearland boys, but rallied to cut a six-point deficit down to one at halftime.
“We talked to them at halftime about having to win the third quarter and how important that was,” coach Golden said. “They responded well and won the third quarter, and we were able to hang on in the fourth quarter long enough to get the win. It was big. The whole gym was in shock, and it was intense.”
The Sharks won the game by four points on Aug. 4, and that No. 4 holds profound significance for the team — it was Nalepa’s old jersey number.
“Here we are winning by four on August 4; it was pretty special,” coach Golden said. “Kelsey is special to us. She’s on our shirts, and I wear the purple wristband always in memory of her.”
The Sharks — which consist of DeGroot, Jayden Golden, Tristin Golden, Gwen Attanasio, Marley Auttonberry, Camdyn Cole, Avery Evans, Jillian Hutchinson and Brylie Reitz — plan to keep competing, with coach Golden hinting the next challenge might be to play up an age group in a girls league.
Regardless, they’ll always know they can hang with the boys.