Vermont town does basketball up big

BARTON, Vt. -- The difference between sitting down for lunch in Burlington at Applebee's and stopping in for a bite at Parson's Corner in Barton isn't just 90 minutes, it's a journey to a different world.

For one, the owner of Applebee's doesn't invite an out-of-town journalist in for a 6:30 a.m. breakfast on the one day of the week the restaurant is closed to help discuss the lay of the land. Barton-Orleans Road is a two-lane, snow covered highway in the Green Mountains that stretches north to the Village of Orleans. Head five minutes north of Parson's Corner Café along that road, and you find Lake Region Union High School, perched on a hill overlooking the terrain locals call Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

Scratch any visions you might have of the movie "Hoosiers." The drive from Burlington out to Orleans County isn't filled with homes and barns with basketball goals nailed to them -- understandable, considering the weather blanketing the area with feet upon feet of white snow in the winter. But the landscape is not the only thing white about the Kingdom. According to U.S. Census numbers, 96.5 percent of Vermont's population is white. So imagine the contradiction when Lake Region Union's team of five African-American players ran out on the court in early February to face Hazen Union High School (Hardwick, Vt.), with the gym's bleachers nearly full.

Just last month, the Rangers of Lake Region Union were runners-up for the state title. It was Rangers head coach Mark Tinker's fourth consecutive trip to state, and it ended with a 50-45 defeat at the hands of Windsor. Windsor was the team that beat the Rangers in 2007, the Rangers' inaugural trip to the championship. The peak so far was the 2009 season when the Rangers won the state title.

But it hasn't always been success for Lake Region Union's athletics.

"I know they were [bad]," said Tinker, a graduate of the class of 1969, referring to the teams from Lake Region in the late 1990s. "My daughter played through there and that was really tough. That's what got me into coaching, seeing them go 1-19, 2-18."

The infusion of African-American students into a part of the country the locals describe as "lily-white," began in part thanks to the parents of Lake Region's first black superstar player, Abbey Lalime.

The Lalime family already had a daughter, Kallie, now 21 years old, when they decided to add to their family. After Tammie Lalime suffered a late-term miscarriage, the family decided on adoption -- eventually leading to the addition of Abbey. Kallie was three at the time.

Just three months after the adoption, Tammie Lalime got the good news that she was pregnant with Holly, now 17 years old.

Yet the Lalime family always wanted their daughters to have a brother. So in time they adopted a 3-year-old African-American boy from Missouri named Trey, who is now 14. The Lalimes now have five daughters and one son.

The Lalime's first adopted child wasn't initially destined for basketball stardom. Through middle school, hockey was always her priority.

The Lalime's would take Abbey 30 minutes north into Canada to play hockey, mostly against boys, and, by middle school, she was getting feedback that she could play collegiately on scholarship. With only some pick-up basketball under her belt, again mostly against boys, she tried out for the middle school team.

"It honestly was really tough," Lalime said. "In basketball I started doing better and liking it and it was almost better than hockey. My parents wanted me to stick with hockey because I played it so long and they thought I'd get a scholarship most likely and basketball was just a side thing I decided to do. But I went with my gut and basketball is what I wanted to do, so that was the decision I made … as it got better they started to accept it a little more."

Tammie Lalime was working for an agency that helps with the adoption process at the time her family adopted Trey. She estimates that the Orleans area has somewhere between 25-30 minority children, from school-aged children up to 21 years of age. She said there have been few incidents at school or in the community where the adopted minority kids have been targets of race-based threats.

While Tammie Lalime was not involved in all the adoptions of minority children in northeastern Vermont, she has helped with several of them and prides herself on helping educate families in the process.

"We're talking about people taking $15,000 second mortgages to pay their placement fees," she said.

Most of the villages that feed Lake Region Union High School are small. The village of Orleans, which is incorporated into the town of Barton, is fewer than 900 people. The median income for a family is $33,872 with 12.2 percent of families below the poverty line.

The biggest single employer is the Ethan Allen manufacturing facility in Orleans, which employs approximately 400 workers, most of which have endured annual rumors of cut-backs or the plant shutting down in the tough national economy. A correctional facility, dairy farms and the service sector employs much of the rest.

Budding into her own stardom, sophomore point guard Kylie Atwood also came to rural Vermont via adoption. Though the Lalimes were not directly involved in Diane and Jeff Atwood's adoption of Kylie, their daughter Abbey would become connected to Kylie because of basketball.

Abbey began playing for the Lone Wolf club team run by Wayne Lafley out of Burlington, Vt., after her freshman year of high school. Aware of Atwood's ability and desire to play, Lalime asked Lafley if she could bring this eighth grade friend of hers to a workout.

With Lone Wolf the pair were exposed to basketball, not just outside the area, but also outside of New England. The team has long been a regular at the Deep South Classic tournament in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina each April and travels extensively in the summer as well. All this from a guy, Lafley, who swore he would never ever do club basketball; he just wanted to train players.

Abbey Lalime, a University of Vermont signee, got looks from schools both in New England and outside of the region. Early in her recruitment she dreamed of getting as far away from Vermont as possible, but because of her tight-knit family she realized she wanted to stay a bit closer than two of her finalists, Memphis or Marshall.

Kylie Atwood on the other hand is adamant about leaving the area for college, which is where the real changes lie for these adopted kids, basketball stars or otherwise.

"[These adopted kids are] black children with very little know-how of racism," Tammie Lalime said. "And the racism in our community comes from ignorance not hate."

Both Atwood and Lalime say they hear the N-word used by classmates of all races, but both say they've never had it used as a derogatory phrase at them directly. An incident last school year, Atwood's freshman year and Lalime's junior year, put school administrators on edge. A student or someone on campus wrote the N-word on a wall of the back stairwell of the school. It happened a second time the following day and the administration talked to few kids about the consequences of involvement of such behavior.

There have been no further issues.

The school's principal, Andre Messier, met with a couple of parents of minority children in the school as well as some students to see if the administration was being blind to a real problem in the school and the feedback he got was that there were "no vibes of racism" in the student body.

In a lot of ways, the kids have come together through the success of the athletic teams at Lake Region. It wasn't as easy as just getting black players out on the court. Support from new administrator, Don Harter, an Indiana native who took over as assistant principal in 2004, then became principal in 2008 before passing on May 11, 2009. According to those at the school who worked with Harter, he demanded excellence academically and athletically, even ruffling some feathers early in his career at Lake Region Union by removing some troubled students from the school, which provided a fertile ground for the resurgence of student body and community.

Though the Barton-Orleans area doesn't sound much like a basketball breeding ground, the commitment of some families to not only a group of talented athletes but to a wider sense of family, and a fiery and passionate administrator capturing the hearts of the students and student-athletes alike created a perfect storm.

With Harter passed and Abbey Lalime just a few months from moving on to her collegiate career, the momentous pressure to maintain the school's athletic motto "U Can't Hide From Harter's Pride," which is spray-painted on the walkway leading up to the school, will fall on the shoulders of perhaps the most talented Ranger yet, Kylie Atwood.

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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at chris.hansen@espn3.com.