Shooting for grand finale to grand tour

A tour of the Heidelberg Castle was one of the highlights for Riverdale Baptist during its trip to Germany last month. Courtesy Sam Caldwell

An American hero wanted two talented teens' autographs.

That's one of the memories guard Chloe Jackson carries with her since she and her teammates from Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) visited Kaiserslautern, Germany, and the nearby Ramstein Air Base last month.

The Thanksgiving week trip was organized by second-year Riverdale coach Sam Caldwell, who served 10 years of active duty in the U.S. Navy, including two combat tours in Iraq.

Riverdale played three exhibition games in Germany, but the trip was far bigger than basketball. Caldwell wanted his girls to get some new life experiences, and that's exactly what happened.

On Thanksgiving Day, the players ate in a large cafeteria inside the base, and Jackson struck up a conversation with a soldier.

"He asked me and [5-foot-9 senior guard Chania Ray] where we were going to college," Jackson said. "He asked for a photo and our autographs and said he would be following our careers.

"I've only signed like three autographs in my life. It was awesome to sign for someone older than me. It made me feel like all my hard work is paying off."

The soldier picked two good athletes to follow. Jackson has signed with NC State, and Ray is a Florida State recruit.

Riverdale has a third ACC-bound senior in 6-2 forward Khaila Prather, a Miami recruit.

With talent like that, it's no wonder Riverdale is the No. 7 team in the espnW 25 Power Rankings heading into the Nike Tournament of Champions, which tips off Thursday in Phoenix.

Riverdale opens against St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.).

"It's the Super Bowl of girls' basketball," said Caldwell, who was an assistant coach when Riverdale lost in the 2012 final to St. Mary's (Phoenix) and a rookie head coach last year when his team lost in the title game to Mater Dei. "The winner of this tournament usually ends up No. 1 in the nation."

Jackson still gets upset when she thinks of last year's 96-74 loss to Mater Dei. Sisters Karlie and Katie Lou Samuelson combined to burn Riverdale for 13 three-pointers and 67 points.

"They had the game of their lives," said Jackson, who also played well with 27 points. "We learned that we have to go over the screen on shooters like that.

"But we have an experienced team now. We've learned our lessons."

Indeed, Riverdale (4-0) starts four seniors: Jackson, Ray, Prather and 5-5 guard Alysha Berry, who is drawing interest from East Carolina, Florida State and Florida. The fifth starting job is split between 6-2 junior forward Lena Niang and 6-1 junior forward Passion Scott.

Jackson said Riverdale has a good formula for success.

"We have the speed to push the ball," she said. "We have shooters on the wings, and [Prather] is unstoppable in the post."

Riverdale, which has a combined record of 67-8 the past two years, easily won its three exhibitions in Germany, beating Kaiserslautern and Ramstein high schools as well as Ramstein's women's team.

But it was the cultural and historical lessons learned in Germany that resonated with the team.

Many of the 17 girls who made the trip -- including a couple from middle school -- had never left the country before coming to Germany. A few had never even been on a plane.

"We got to see and touch things involving World War II and European culture and history," Caldwell said. "It probably put the classroom to shame."

The team spent the day before Thanksgiving at a USO clinic for wounded warriors from Afghanistan.

There was also ample time for sightseeing, including a tour of the Heidelberg Castle, the construction of which dates to the 13th century.

"You usually only see castles in movies," Berry said. "Taking a tour of the Heidelberg Castle was a highlight for me."

Added Prather, "They kept everything in the castle preserved, so it felt like you were there in the old days. It was huge too."

One of the most enjoyable moments for the team was when it took in the performance of a German musician at a town square in Kaiserslautern. He sang and played guitar and piano, and Prather was so moved by the beat of a German song that she got up to dance.

Pretty soon, all of her teammates were dancing, and others in the town square joined in as the musician switched to American songs.

"I had to bring the Riverdale Dance Crew to Germany," Prather joked. "Me and Alysha started doing an R&B two-step. We had to keep it simple for everybody.

"Then the guy started playing Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire. When he played 'Kung Fu Fighting,' we all went crazy."

On the plane ride back from Germany, the players assessed all they had seen, including the dedicated soldiers who are doing dangerous jobs far from their homes and families.

"We learned to value what we have," Jackson said. "Not everyone is as fortunate as we are."