A New Team In Town

Before the start of the Northeast Dubois girls basketball home game, Lexi Lampert, 8, left, Kinley Schnell and Lily Goepfrich, both 9, all of Celestine, observe the playing of the national anthem with the girls varsity team in Dubois on Jan. 8. During halftime the Little Jeeps get to play a basketball game on the court.

Story by Hendrix Magley

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

Growing up, you learn from a young age just how important the sport of basketball is to the state of Indiana. Whether it’s hearing tales of the legendary Indiana University men’s basketball teams from the 1980s or the stories of Hoosier-born legends such as Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, as the saying goes, “in 49 other states, it’s just basketball.”

Katlyn Johnson, 10, of Martin County, practices shooting baskets at Northeast Dubois High School on Jan 13. The Little Jeeps practice Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoon.

This also means that a majority of young kids in the Hoosier state have a basketball in their hands before the time they even reach elementary school. However, in some places, that isn’t necessarily always the case. Thanks to a few coaching volunteers, one local community is taking a step to introduce young girls to the sport of basketball.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Little Jeeps.

The Northeast Dubois girls basketball program has been successful for as long as residents in the community of Dubois can remember. They’ve won 16 sectional championships, including 11 consecutive titles from 2003 to 2013, and also made two appearances in the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 1A State Finals in 2005 and 2012.

The Jeeps have also traditionally had deep rosters, with players from each grade level. But this season, the Jeeps only had enough players to field a varsity squad, not a junior varsity or freshman team. While the Jeeps have always had a youth program with the middle school, this year marked the first time that program was expanded to include third- and fourth-graders.

“Myself and the other coaches, we started asking questions to the high school program — is there anyway we can help? Do we need to be doing anything?” said Blake Kalb, who works alongside Shane Werner with the fourth-grade girls in the Little Jeeps program.

Ian Denu, who mostly works with the third-grade girls, added: “The high school coaches reached out to us to put something together. We felt that we really needed to get together and start a program at those ages. A lot of other communities already do it, some don’t, but you can definitely tell the progress of the girls that start playing at a younger age.”

 

Ian Denu, left, Blake Kalb, center, and Shane Werner, all of Dubois, talk with the Little Jeeps, a basketball program made up of third- and fourth-grade girls, before the start of practice at Dubois Middle School on Dec. 12. All three started coaching basketball with hopes of building the basketball program. “In a small school, you run the risk of losing the program if you don’t start them out young and get their interest growing in it,” Kalb said. “So, hopefully, by doing this, we can build the interest in these girls.”

The Little Jeeps began their practices in October, and met twice a week to work on drills. They practiced on Wednesday nights in the middle school gym, and on Sunday mornings, the girls played on the high school court.

Austin Kempf, 9, of Dubois, dribbles to ball down the court during the Little Jeeps basketball game at Northeast Dubois High School on Jan. 10.

 

The coaches admit that at the beginning of the season, practices weren’t necessarily the easiest things.

“The first few practices as coaches, we were like, ‘Oh, boy, do we have our hands full’,” Denu said. “In the beginning, you’re just working on teaching them the basic fundamentals about the game of basketball. You want to make it as fun as you can for them so they keep coming back.”

If you ask the girls who participate in the Little Jeeps program why they chose to get involved, they’ll all answer with the same response — a jubilant exclamation of, “It’s fun!”

At the beginning of the season, the girls were mostly focused on working on the basic fundamentals, such as how to shoot the ball and what to do on defense. But toward the end of the year, they began to run through certain offensive sets, and also learned how to set screens and what to do on inbounds plays and free throw attempts.

The biggest thing the coaches have had to deal with is making sure the young girls stay focused — it’s one of the biggest reasons the Little Jeeps only practice for an hour.

“Some of the girls don’t focus at all, but at the same time, some of them are out there like, ‘Grrr, let’s go get it!’” Kalb said. “There’s a reason we only practice for an hour at a time, because after an hour, you can tell it’s over.”

There’s no doubt the practices can be a grind at times, but the girls believe they’ve grown so much throughout the year thanks to the help from their coaches.

Coaches Shane Werner, left, and Ian Denu, both of Dubois, talk with Sophie Lynch, 8, of Dubois, and Kinley Schnell, 9, of Celestine, about their upcoming game in Dubois on Jan. 8. 

“When we first started, I used to suck,” Bailey Werner said with a laugh. “But now, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better, because in the beginning, I didn’t even know where to go [on the court]. I used to just kind of stand in the middle.”

But with the positives also come some frustrations for the players.

“I don’t like that when we pass [the ball] to people, they just lose it,” said Adalie Kalb, Blake’s daughter. “But I do like that we get to play together.”

While the Little Jeeps mostly just played together in the form of practices, they also got to showcase their skills by playing against each other during halftime at the Northeast Dubois varsity girls basketball games.

These games are a good opportunity for the third- and fourth-graders to showcase their skills to the Dubois community, and also meet and interact with the high school players who they someday hope to emulate.

“I see no way that this can hurt our program,” said Andy Chinn, head coach of the Northeast Dubois girls basketball team. “Our numbers are strong in third and fourth grade, and we have a lot of young girls right now who are fired up about basketball. Hopefully by the time they get to high school, our success is still going up and they’ll be a big part of it.”

Chinn has even made sure to make a big point to his varsity players to make sure they work with the younger girls and help them with whatever they need help with.

“We’ve all been third- and fourth-graders at one point looking up to people at the high school level,” Chinn said. “We’ve tried to get our kids to buy in to stopping by their practices, talking to them in between and before games to make them feel like a part of this.”

Katlyn Johnson, 10, of Martin County, left, Halle Denu, 8, Jazlyn Zehr, 9, Adalie Kalb, Bailey Werner, both 10, and Kinley Case, 9, all of Dubois, hang out while watching the first half of the Northeast Dubois girls basketball game on Jan. 10. “My brother plays, and it looked fun,” Bailey said about why she wanted to play basketball. “And you get to make new friends.”

The fourth-grade Little Jeeps also got their first taste of what an actual game feels like just a couple of weeks ago. The fourth-graders traveled with the Dubois Middle School fifth-graders and played with the fifth-grade team’s B Team against Cedar Crest Intermediate School.

While the Rangers beat the Jeeps 6-5 in that game, it was the first time that several of the fourth-graders got to play a game against players other than their own teammates — players that were older than them as well.

“It was really promising. I was really pleased with how it went,” Blake Kalb said. His daughter, Adalie, scored a few points in the game.

“These kids were so excited to play, and they already have a very good grasp on the game,” the dad said.

At the end of the day, everyone around the Little Jeeps program is very excited about what the future holds, and how much growth has been seen from the players — and even the coaches — just since the program began in October.

No matter what, the Little Jeeps will have a lasting impression on the Northeast Dubois girls basketball program.

“When these girls first started out, they could hardly make a basket,” Denu said. “But now they know where to shoot, they know how to shoot and they’re making all kinds of shots.”

Kalb added: “I wasn’t really sure how this was all going to happen. I didn’t have any expectations coming into this. We’re going to take it a step further, and we’ll just have to see what goes on from there.”

Emerson Kellams of Dubois, left, Addie Bradley of Celestine and Austin Kempf of Dubois, all 9, high-five Northeast Dubois' Brinley Royer at the start of the girls basketball game in Dubois on Jan. 10.



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