Erin DeGrate Taking Sweet Tooth, Sweet Game To Louisville

Courtesy Carol Collyer

Louisville recruit Erin DeGrate, looking to receive a pass, helped lift La Vega (Waco, Texas) to its first state title, then asked for a Sprite.

They call her Cookie Monster, and she likes her Sprite, too.

But unlike the Sesame Street character, Erin DeGrate feasts on rebounds and blocked shots, in addition to her favorite snack of Oreos.

DeGrate, a 6-foot-5 senior post who gave a verbal commitment to Louisville this week, led La Vega (Waco, Texas) to its first state title last season, as the Pirates finished 35-0 and in the No. 25 spot in the final espnW 25 Power Rankings.

However, one night before that Class 3A state final in Austin, DeGrate and a few of her teammates had eaten hot-and-spicy chicken wings in their hotel room.

Thirsty, DeGrate and another girl went to get soda pops -- which was in violation of the rules set forth by coach Amy Gillum, who wanted her players to take the healthy alternative and drink water.

DeGrate's Sprite was confiscated by her no-nonsense coach.

"I was mad," said DeGrate, the No. 57 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60. "We didn't have anything to drink, and I was so thirsty."

DeGrate took her anger out on Argyle the next day, posting 12 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in a 47-42 win.

After the celebration, DeGrate had just one request of her coach.

"Can I have my Sprite back now?" DeGrate asked. "I earned it."

DeGrate paced her team throughout the season, leading La Vega in scoring (18.6), rebounds (9.7) and blocks (3.5).

"Erin dominates defensively and on the boards," Gillum said. "As a freshman, she was an immediate starter and had one game in which she had 30 rebounds."

Full circle

Gillum and DeGrate have been virtually joined at the hip the past three-plus years.

This is Gillum's first job as a head coach, and she got hired in the lead-up to DeGrate's freshman year.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Erin DeGrate averaged 18.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks last year as a junior at La Vega.

But Gillum goes back even further at La Vega. She was a basketball player in 1994 when her alma mater lost in the state final. The next year, La Vega was frustrated again, losing in the state semifinals.

Jeff Jefferson was Gillum's head coach back then.

This past season, when La Vega finally ended its state-title drought, Jefferson served as Gillum's assistant coach.

"One of my players said, 'This championship was for Coach Gillum to finally finish what she started,' " Gillum said. "It meant a lot to be able to win state at my old high school with my old coach and with this group of girls."

La Vega started three juniors and two sophomores last season, and all five of those players return to try to continue their championship reign.

Most of the La Vega kids have been playing together for a while, which is what inspired DeGrate's confidence in her team.

"I knew we were going to be good," she said. "I just didn't know we were going to be that good."

Major strides

United Elite AAU coach Jamarius Byrd, who has worked with DeGrate since she was in the seventh grade, has seen the growth of her game.

She was about 6-1 when she joined United Elite, but her size was the only thing that was impressive at that time.

"She was as raw as raw can be," Byrd said. "She had played some city basketball, and all they had taught her was to stand under the basket and put her hands up.

"I saw her miss 10 layups in one possession. She would miss and get her own rebound and then miss again."

Despite the growing pains, Byrd said he saw great potential.

"She was passive back then -- she didn't want to hurt anyone," he said. "Still, I saw that she loved the game. She had talent, but I knew there would be a lot of hard work to bring it out."

Byrd and Gillum have helped DeGrate get that work done.

DeGrate, a lefty, has developed "amazing hands" and has "great footwork," according to Gillum.

Gillum has used numerous drills to improve DeGrate's hands. In one of them, two players face each other -- one has a tennis ball and the other a basketball. They toss those balls back and forth, catching them with one hand, improving hand-eye coordination.

Meanwhile, to this day Byrd has DeGrate do all the same ballhandling drills his guards must perform.

DeGrate has also developed an outside shot up to 18 feet, and she runs the floor well for a post.

"She's often the first one out on the fast break," Gillum said.

Hot recruit

Because of her height and skills, DeGrate was a hotly sought-after recruit. Before choosing Louisville, DeGrate had a list of finalists that also included Baylor, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

DeGrate, who is interested in becoming either a lawyer or a sports commentator, visited Louisville last weekend and canceled her other scheduled tours.

"I want to sign [with Louisville] in November," she said.

In the meantime, DeGrate plans to enjoy her senior year. Byrd calls her "the biggest joker around," and La Vega point guard Kobi Gill agrees.

One of the biggest laughs DeGrate got last season came when Gillum got a little too amped up when she was yelling at one of her players. She slipped and fell -- she was fine in the end -- and DeGrate could not stop laughing about it after the game.

"Erin is very goofy and loud," said Gill, a 5-7 junior. "She likes to mess with people.

"We always talk about her laugh. She laughs at things that aren't that funny. And she catches people by surprise because she laughs really big."

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