Spring Garden sophomore point guard Ace Austin just recently turned 16. She’s driving to Dale Welsh Gymnasium all by herself now, meaning the basketball conversations with her dad and head coach Ricky Austin on the six-mile drive over to the gym have dwindled down.
“That’s replaced on some of these trips to these travel tournaments now,” Ricky said. “We’re still in the car, the airplane, side by side talking to each other, getting to have those conversations that I think are important, not just as a coach’s kid, but just to have them with your kid in general. I don’t want to lose that.”
Ace and her dad had quite the summer, particularly the month of July. She, along with Sand Rock junior Katelyn StClair, was part of the Southern Starz 15-and-under AAU travel team, a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League program based in Huntsville. Ace and Katelyn were on opposite teams.
Both families were frequent cross country fliers. Ace and Ricky traveled Virginia in April. Ace was invited to Las Vegas in May and was the Most Valuable Player of a game out there. The Austins also traveled to Chicago and Orlando in July.
Among Katelyn’s stops in July were North Carolina, Orlando and Kentucky.
Both Ace and Katelyn were playing with and against the best of the best high school girls basketball players in the United States, and in front of college coaches from around the nation.
“Sometimes I just think ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ It’s exciting,” Ace said. “I became close friends with a girl from California when we went to Las Vegas and played. She just had surgery. She tore her ACL. I’ve talked to her a good bit. She used to train every week with Kobe Bryant, Kyrie (Irving), all the big-time NBA players. Knowing these people and all the hard work they do, it’ll just push you to go even harder.”
“It’s definitely a very different environment than high school. Everybody’s good,” Katelyn said. “It pushes you and shows you what college is actually going to be like, to see if you’re capable of playing with that competition.
“You train for these moments. As a little girl, I’ve always dreamed of playing in big tournaments. To finally see that paying off is a big deal.”
Speaking of training, Ace has been on the AAU travel circuit since her fifth grade year. Ricky said Southern Starz director Doug Bush contacted him about bringing Ace into the program.
“I was like ‘Doug, I appreciate it, but that’s just too young. I’m not interested in her traveling ball at that age,’” Ricky said. “He said ‘Just do this. Just bring her to a practice and let me look at her. I’ve heard about her. I want to see her.’”
The Austins drove to Huntsville for a workout, and the rest is history.
“They had five cones set up in the middle of the gym floor. There were like four girls there he wanted to look at. Ace dribbled through the cones one time and he comes by me and said ‘I’m going to another gym. I want her,’” Ricky said. “He watched her go through the cones one time. He said I’ll call you later. He called me later in the week. I said ‘Doug, we’re not interested in this. This is too young.’ He said ‘Do me a favor. Bring her to a tournament this weekend and let her play in a tournament with one of our teams.’ I think it was in Tennessee. We drove up and Ace’s team got shellacked by 30 and 50 (points) every game. They got embarrassed. I’m thinking ‘Yeah, we’re not ready for this’, but she come off the court out of the gym after it was over and was like ‘Dad, that’s the most fun I ever had. Can we do that again next week?’ And here we are.”
And, Ace said, it’s paying dividends.
“Losing is not fun, but the competition is fun,” Ace said. “I can already tell playing at that level (is helping). I’m playing up in age group. Just playing against that big and that strong of people, pretty much the best players in the nation really, playing against them is just helping my game so much. I’m not taking anything away from Alabama players, but playing against people from everywhere else is a totally different type of competition and skill.”
Sand Rock girls basketball coach Lisa Bates said it’s also paying dividends for Katelyn as well.
“Just to play that kind of competition has got to make you better,” Bates said. “She’s gotten stronger on defense, boxing out and driving to the goal. I think it’s really improved her game.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice to give up all of July to go and play, but Katelyn has really worked at it. I’m proud of her for putting forth the effort. She came back to watch her brother (Jacob) play in the (AHSAA) all-star game, then went right back to Orlando. She missed a lot of play dates for volleyball, but that’s okay, because she’s getting better at basketball. We’re really proud of how much time and extra effort she’s putting into it.”
Playing in such an environment with a big spotlight and with the eyes of college coaches on them might be a little overwhelming for kids Ace and Katelyn’s ages to take in, but they both said they try not to think about that. Both already have numerous offers, but they just want to play their games and get better for their respective high school teams.
“You really don’t have anything to be nervous about,” Ace said. “Just seeing them there, it is exciting, and being able to talk to them is exciting. The recruitment process is challenging sometimes. It’ll get harder the older I get, but you just have to be smart.
“Of course, after I graduate, I want to play college basketball. Right now I’m still working hard so I can play college and all that, but my mindset is I’m still working to put those banners up and get more rings (at Spring Garden). A state championship is still an experience everybody wants to have. I’m ready to get that experience back. That’s what I’m working for and I just can’t wait.”