Bringing chemistry

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- It may not have helped them be selected, but it certainly doesn't hurt the USA U16 basketball team that five of the 12 members come from two of the best high school teams in the country.

The level of comfort with each other, on the court and off, for Bolingbrook (Ill.) stars Ariel Massengale and Morgan Tuck and for Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) stars Jordan Adams, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Alexyz Vaioletama brought an instant chemistry to the squad.

"On the court, when we play against each other, we play hard and go at each other," said Massengale, Bolingbook's sophomore point guard. "But off the court, we're good friends; we joke around with each other all the time. Just to be able to have that bond and friendship with somebody like that ... they have a great team. It's a lot of fun.

Both programs finished the 2008-09 season ranked in the ESPN Rise Fab 50's top 10, with Bolingbrook at No. 3 and Mater Dei at No. 7, and are expected to be among the top five in the 2009-10 preseason rankings -- with a possible meeting in December, as both Bolingbrook and Mater Dei are scheduled for the top bracket the elite Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix.

While their knowledge of their own teammates' abilities may not have helped with their selections, the ability for each of the five to reach outside their teammates to the other girls likely did have an impact.

"Probably on some level their chemistry helped, but what we don't want to allow is for that to slow down the chemistry of the 12," coach Barbara Nelson said. "We're making sure they don't room together, not letting them be shooting partners, those kinds of things. It's not about having small pods of chemistry, it's about having one large pod of chemistry and I think they're pretty focused about not staying in their box."

The reaching out helped bring girls into the circle and it showed in Sunday's first practice. While the players went as hard or harder than they did during trials, there were also giggle fits and quite a bit of friendly competition. It only solidified for Nelson and selection committee chair Carol Callan that the choices were right.

"We're not looking for the 12 best kids," Callan said Sunday. "We're looking for the 12 players that would make a very good team."

The process that ended Sunday afternoon with the announcement of the team's 12 members began in November as the six-person selection committee, led by Callan, the non-voting chair from USA Basketball, started with the same model and approach as USA Basketball selection committees use in other age groups.

Joining Callan on the committee were player representative Jamie Carey, a former WNBA point guard, AAU representatives Jody Patrick and Brian Robinson, and high school coaches Jill Meerman and Sue Phillips. Patrick is with the Vogues AAU program from Virginia, while Robinson coaches the Stealers AAU and Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School teams from North Carolina. Meerman coaches at Decatur Central (Indianapolis, Ind.), while Phillips leads the Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) program.

"The difficult part for this (age group) was that there's not as much information out there," Callan said. "So we needed to pull together a variety of resources. We continually had conference calls to go over the information."

Callan attended the Nike Tournament of Champions in December to talk to coaches and people involved in the sport. She also sent out letters to Division I coaches as well as previous developmental festival coaches and called other people she felt could offer valuable input.

Through many conference calls among the committee, a list with hundreds of players was whittled down to 27 initially, then later expanded to 34, for the four-day trials.

"We are interested in a developmental concept," Callan said. "They're young. This is a snapshot of where they are at this particular time. We now have 34 kids in our developmental national team program and, at this snapshot in time, we're going to look at these 12 on this U16 team."

One of the developmental aspects for each of the 34 girls at the trials is taking home an extensive evaluation of their game written by the selection committee. The group spent most of Saturday's available time filling out the player's evaluations.

"As you sit down and start to do the evaluations, identifying some strengths and things to improve on, that helps in the process of where people fit in the team," Callan said. "We didn't really know until (Sunday) morning at 10. We used the last session to make some final decisions."

And those decisions were almost entirely up to the six-person committee. When it came to input from the coaching staff, Nelson, also the coach at Wingate University, and her assistants offered information on coachability, attitude and similar things, but let the committee do its part in making the selections.

"Part of coaching is being flexible," Nelson said. "We have a system, but we're willing to change according to what we have. We wanted the best team they possibly could pick and we would go from there."

Nelson and Callan were both pleased Sunday evening with the selected finalists, but as with any new program, there can be some bumps along the way. Callan said she would start the process of collecting names earlier so that the committee has more time to discuss the list and, given limitless money, she would be interested in a more extensive tryout system.

"A wild dream in the future is to try and do regional tryouts," Callan said. "To go out and have a graduated process. It's just an expensive process for the players and we don't want to have somebody not be able to come because they can't afford to.

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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at mindi@hoopgurlz.com.