PAWTUCKET – At about this time last season, Team Providence Athletics – then an Under-14 girls' basketball travel squad under the direction of Pawtucket hoop legend Walter “Bunky” Gonzalez – bused into the Bay State to qualify for the AAU National Girls' Under-14 Division II Tournament, always held at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
Unfortunately, it dropped a heartbreaking four-point loss to the North Central Blaze of Gardner, Mass. in the championship final.
Gonzalez's group apparently never forgot the pain inflicted from that defeat, and it more than showed on the weekend of May 10-12.
In the Massachusetts' AAU Under-15 qualifying tourney held at the University Sports Complex in Hanover (Rhode Island doesn't conduct one), Team Providence captured five straight victories, then mustered a thrilling 45-42 triumph over the powerful Massachusetts Ducks of Boylston in the title tilt.
With it, Gonzalez and Co. sealed a berth in the national event, slated for the same Disney site on July 8-13.
“When we won that game, the kids' reaction was like they had just won Powerball,” chuckled Gonzalez, who has mentored this group of area girls for over three years now. “My daughter, Danyel (a St. Raphael Academy sophomore), ran up and hugged me, she was so happy.
“Then again, we always have a group hug before every game, and I told the kids before the final, 'We have one more to go!'” he added. “We only had a half-hour break between the semifinal (a 60-48 win over the Boston Showstoppers) and final, and we started the championship (game) at about 4:45 p.m.
"By 6:15, we had won, and the girls just flipped!”
When asked if he was surprised by his contingent's success, he stated quickly, “Not really. I always knew the girls had team chemistry and the will to drive to victory, especially after being so close last year.”
Gonzalez had just returned to his Pawtucket home on Wednesday night after yet one more practice session at Cranston's St. Matthew School's gymnasium, and he claimed his girls are ready and raring to go.
“We're still working hard; we had a good practice,” noted Gonzalez, an All-Division and All-State guard/forward at Shea High in the mid-1980s. Upon graduating in 1988, he went on to play for Eastern Connecticut State University, where he earned All-Conference laurels as a sophomore and junior after snaring the league's Defensive Player of the Year award as a frosh.
He also spent several seasons coaching at his alma mater, but now he's leading these 12 athletes, those who are freshmen and sophomores from schools as close as SRA, Bay View, La Salle, Juanita Sanchez, Moses Brown and Lincoln School to as far away as Scituate, Cranston East and even Bishop Stang in Dartmouth.
“Our motto is 'Stress fundamentals, and everything else will fall into place,'” he continued. “Conditioning, obviously, is No. 1, but we also concentrate on the basics – ball-handling, passing, footwork, free throws and execution. We went for an hour and a half, and they played hard for all 90 minutes – without a break.
“I caught a little of the 'Aw, Coach! Can't we stop for a little bit?' but I told them, 'Girls, do you want to win at nationals or not? Keep your noses to the grindstone and keep plugging.' And you know what? They did.
“Look at some of the names on our roster. Dasia Allen (a Sanchez sophomore) was the top scorer in the state last year as a freshman, and was third this season. Kaylee Oliver (a Saints' freshman transfer from Swansea) had a great year; she's our sharpshooter, and Deja Ross (a soon-to-be Lincoln School sophomore) is a great talent.”
There's only one issue for this squad right now – at it's not discipline or desire at workouts. It's trying to raise more funds for the trip to Orlando. Gonzalez indicated his girls have raised approximately $1,200 “from candy bar sales, canning (at intersections and in front of amiable stores) and begging parents and local business, but we're still short,” Gonzalez explained. “We're estimating we need about $5,000 for airfare and lodging.
“We have to be there by July 7 for registration and pre-tournament workouts, so that's the only thing the kids seem a little nervous about.”
One thing's a given: They weren't timid about busting their humps to gain the right to fly to Disney World.
In its preliminary game against the Bristol, R.I. Stars, Team Providence rode a game-high 15 points from Deja Ross and Danyel Gonzalez's 11 points, seven assists and four steals to a 47-25 blowout on May 11.
It followed with a 44-37 verdict over the Student Stars Club of Boston, thanks in part to Scituate High sophomore Sadie Ross' “double-double” (16 points, 10 boards) and Oliver's 15 points (12 from beyond the three-point arc).
The elder Gonzalez's crew then had to awake early on Mother's Day to face the Visionary Basketball Club of Hartford at 9 a.m., but Allen manufactured 16 points and four assists, while Cranston East sophomore Molly Phillips chipped in 10 points and six rebounds and the younger Gonzalez six points and five thefts in an easy 44-28 thumping.
At 11 a.m., they took on the Massachusetts Huskies of Waltham in a quarterfinal, earning a 53-38 victory; it came courtesy of Sadie Ross' 16 points and seven boards and Oliver's 16 points (15 via the trey), four assists and three steals.
The semifinal, however, didn't come easy; it never does against a team like the Boston Showstoppers. Officials ejected Danyel early in the opening half, and Team Providence sustained a 15-point deficit at the break.
“We went to full-court pressure in the second half, and Seun Shittu (a Saints' sophomore) had four of her (team-high) eight steals in it, despite battling shin splints,” Bunky Gonzalez offered. “It was a tough, physical game, and Boston actually had two girls ejected for over-the-top fouls.”
In the end, the guard/forward swing Sadie Ross finished with 16 points and eight boards while namesake (but no relation) Deja contributed 15 points.
After three games within a span of about six hours, 30 minutes, Team Providence battled the Ducks, and left the Hanover sports center with the three-point victory.
Oliver recorded 14 points, four assists and three steals, while Deja Ross managed 12 points, including the game-winning trifecta with 25 ticks left in regulation.
“We did have an unsung hero in that game, and it was a young girl from Moses Brown,” Gonzalez said. “Belle Channell is a freshman from Warwick, and she hit two crucial free throws with about three minutes remaining. That tied it up at 33-33, and they swung the momentum our way.
“Those two teams – the Showstoppers and the Ducks – compete on the national level year-in and year-out, and they're both really good, but we found a way to (tame) both of them,” he continued. “Going into the semifinal, the girls had given it everything they had. It was their third game in about five hours.
“I thought they'd run out of gas, and that if either of them had taken a big lead, it would've been over. We were down (to the Ducks) by eight or nine in the first half, but the girls kept plugging, pulled together and went on a run.
“They've worked so hard for this; they deserve to go to Orlando. They really want to fly down there and show everyone what they're made of.”
Gonzalez indicated Team Providence will face some of the 40 best teams in the country in their age grouping (Under-15 Division II).
“They'll bracket it out just like they do for the NCAA (Tournament),” he said. “We'll be in a pool, probably of 10 teams, and then it will filter into bracket play. They're so excited. They can't wait.”
With a laugh, he added, “Are we desperate for funds? You bet! We're out just about every day trying to get there, but any help will be more than appreciated.”
Anyone wishing to donate to the squad's cause (it's definitely a tax deduction) may do by sending
a check of any amount to Team Providence Athletics, P.O. Box 5845, Providence, R.I. 02903 or by calling Coach Gonzalez at (401) 413-5202.