‘At the end of the day, you’re a ball player’

Alan­nah Yates is the only girl play­ing on a boys’ high school bas­ket­ball team in Hamil­ton

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE MIL­TON

ALAN­NAH YATES LOVES be­ing a point guard. But she also loves mak­ing a point:

“That it doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re a girl or a boy; at the end of the day you’re a ball player.”

Yates is ex­actly that for the Sher­wood Saints se­nior boys’ bas­ket­ball team. The Grade 12 stu­dent was fac­ing her fi­nal sea­son of high school with­out bas­ket­ball be­cause she’d stopped play­ing club rep hoops and rep soc­cer in or­der to con­cen­trate on her stud­ies, and then had the se­nior girls’ team at Sher­wood fold un­der­neath her in the au­tumn when there weren’t enough play­ers.

But Chris Thomaidis, the teacher who car­ried the un­usual dual port­fo­lio of coach­ing both the Saints girls’ and boys’ teams, made the sug­ges­tion, which turned around her grad­u­at­ing year.

“He came to me and said, ‘I want you to come out and play for the boys,’” she says. “I want to thank him for that. It was a huge op­por­tu­nity for me, and it made me a bet­ter player. I had lost my con­fi­dence in ball a while ago, and he brought it back.”

High school rules say fe­male ath­letes can play

on a boys’ team if they can make the ros­ter, but Thomaidis says in his 20 years of coach­ing boys, “I’ve never had a girl on the team and never coached against a girl on the other team.

“She’s one of the bet­ter play­ers in the city, and I thought it was a good op­por­tu­nity for her to come out and play. She’s got that drive.

“I’ve had more coaches con­grat­u­late me, and her, too, for tak­ing on that chal­lenge, which you don’t see very of­ten.”

As Thomaidis sees it, a wel­come “sign of the times” is that there has been lit­tle or no buzz about Yates play­ing, no neg­a­tive re­ac­tions from her team­mates, op­po­nents, nor fans at her games, and that the other Saints, all boys, have all been en­cour­ag­ing and spend ex­tra time work­ing with her.

Yates is the first to ad­mit that she doesn’t star in the boys’ game, as she did in the girls’ (she was in the city girls’ all-star game de­spite not play­ing in the league), but she holds her own and has earned an in­vi­ta­tion from Mo­hawk Col­lege to play there next sea­son.

Against West­dale last week and in Mon­day’s play­off win over Sir John A. Mac­don­ald Chiefs, she didn’t score but didn’t look out of place, “and was great on de­fence and got a lot of as­sists,” Thomaidis said.

“It’s been amaz­ing,” Yates said. “It’s made me bet­ter as an ath­lete and, lately, I have been start­ing games. The boys’ game is a lot faster, but it makes me more aware of the court. And there are def­i­nitely things I shouldn’t be do­ing in guys’ bas­ket­ball that I do in girls’. I can’t do cross-court pass­ing be­cause, 99 per cent, they’re huge and they pick it off. And they’re quicker on the first step.”

At Sher­wood, Yates has starred in se­nior and ju­nior girls’ bas­ket­ball and vol­ley­ball, and she also helped Sher­wood win a pair of Divi­sion II soc­cer ti­tles. She’s also played ten­nis, ran track and is a mem­ber of the stu­dent coun­cil.

That affin­ity for sport came from hav­ing an older sis­ter (Jes­sica) who plays bas­ket­ball, and a child­hood of play­ing games with and against boys in neigh­bour­hood school yards. One of them was her life­long friend, Bran­don Ba­horic, now, un­ex­pect­edly, a fel­low Saints guard.

“So when peo­ple are like, ‘Are you ner­vous?’ I say, ‘This is what I grew up do­ing.’”

But she does con­fess to some early ap­pre­hen­sion about how she would be re­ceived by her team and out­siders. “Even my mom ex­pected some kind of nega­tiv­ity, but ev­ery­one’s been so pos­i­tive. That’s what I want. I was ner­vous about whether I’d be ac­cepted, and that’s not an is­sue. That is huge.

“I was ex­pect­ing so much more (nega­tiv­ity) but I was ready for it. I didn’t care be­cause I was play­ing ball. This is my last year and I’m go­ing out with a bang.”

Yates says she’s proud of what she’s do­ing, and loves to watch the faces of the fans and op­po­nents on the road, as they slowly re­al­ize there’s a girl on the court.

And she’s mind­ful that Thomaidis had the orig­i­nal idea, gave her the per­sonal sup­port and seized a teach­ing mo­ment. “He’s ed­u­cat­ing ev­ery­one,” Yates says. “It’s not only show­ing me some­thing and prov­ing some­thing to me; it’s prov­ing some­thing to ev­ery­one: that you can do it. You need that right per­son to be­lieve in you … and he be­lieves in me.”

Alan­nah Yates plays for the Sher­wood Saints se­nior boys’ bas­ket­ball team, who won their first-round play­off game Mon­day.

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Alan­nah Yates says she was con­cerned about whether she would be wel­comed by her boys’ team. “Even my mom ex­pected some kind of nega­tiv­ity, but ev­ery­one’s been so pos­i­tive. That’s what I want. I was ner­vous about whether I’d be ac­cepted, and that’s not an is­sue. That is huge.”

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