If Howard County put together an All Star team of the top girls basketball players it would look an awful lot like the 16U Maryland Attitude National — which finished third nationally on the Division I AAU level the past two years.
The roster contains some of the best players in the county, including Glenelg's Grace Butera, Jessica Foster and Bernice Hanlon, Centennial's Kelly Simmons, Howard's Emileigh Scott and Atholton's Ryan Jones, Francesca Vanegas and Sofia Harrison. Foster, Jones, Scott, Simmons and Vanegas all rank among the top 15 scorers in Howard County this winter.
Those eight players are joined by Carroll County studs in Manchester Valley's Mackenzie DeWees (reigning Carroll County Times Player of the Year), Jayce Klingenberg (second team All-Carroll County Times), Winters Mill Kaila Brown (first team All-Carroll County Times), Westminster's Brooke Riliey and Arianna Cottom. It all adds up to the Maryland Attitude having emerged as one of the best AAU teams in the country.
"You look around and see these sophomores and juniors in Howard County and how well they're doing (and) some of those top players — in both Howard and Carroll — most of them are on this team and it's something that a lot of people don't know about," said Attitude and Gladiators assistant coach Larry Butera. "It's a neat dynamic and I think it's done a lot for basketball in the county, because it makes it more competitive. Most of these kids go and play somewhere in the collegiate level and it's just been a really neat thing to be involved with."
Attitude is coached by former Mount St. Mary's alumna Heather DeWees, who is one of the best women's basketball players to suit up for the Mountaineers. She ranks 25th in Mount history with 1,045 career points — despite only playing three seasons. DeWees was also a three-time NEC All-Tournament selection and was honored twice as an All-Conference performer.
"It's been awesome. She knows what to do in almost every situation because she's been around the game for so long," Grace Butera said. "She knows so much about the game that she can share it with us and it's been great to have that kind of leadership on our team."
DeWees' coaching style has also helped Simmons, who currently is leading the league in points per game this season (17.9) and is pulling down roughly 11 boards per contest as well.
"She's always there for us. We'll be playing and she can tell us what we're doing wrong and how to fix it as it's happening, and that's huge," Simmons said of DeWees. "I know for me, it's big to tell me as it happens and not just saying, 'Oh your not playing well or what are you guys doing?' She knows what to do to fix it and she's always super helpful with the recruiting process because she's been through it. She's always telling us to pick the school and not the team first and just little stuff like that."
The Attitude is comprised entirely of juniors and underclassmen, and, despite their youth, virtually everyone on the roster plays a critical role on their high school team.
"It's literally like an all star team. When you put those kids on the court, they can easily beat a lot of Division II college teams — that's how good this team is," Larry Butera said. "It's not hyperbole, it's truly the best of the best. And the Carroll County kids are the same way. It's just an amazing group of kids who are just tremendous basketball players; it's just awesome."
Larry Butera and Heather DeWees combined their teams a few years ago, with the main core of Vanegas, Butera and Hanlon on the Howard County side. Simmons joined the Attitude two years ago and the team gradually added Scott and Jones to really put their team to the next level from Division II – where they finished second nationally for two consecutive years – to the Division I level.
"It's different for everyone. We've all known each other probably six years, seven years," Grace Butera said. "Me and Fran played together during travel leagues when we were really young – fourth, fifth grade I think. We've always played together. Ryan joined last year, I think (because) she knows Fran and she saw how successful we were doing… When she came we were low on guards and it was really helpful to have another good guard join our team."
At the Division II level, Attitude finished 30th in their first year, then improved immensely the following year to earn a second place standing at the national tournament. They've continued their success at the Division I level, getting one win away from the National Championship game.
"This summer we were something like (51-13), so we played 65 games and every one of those games are against a very high caliber opponent," Larry Butera said. "We travel probably three weekends out of the four and we travel in all parts of the country. The level of basketball that they're playing against in the summer, when they come back they get so much better."
It's not a coincidence how much success all the players have had in their young varsity careers. Larry Butera agreed the experience gained playing against top caliber players during AAU gave the girls a quicker learning curve when they headed into high school.
"These kids coming in aren't freshmen. These kids played 100 basketball games since last season and the summer, so they're coming in here as juniors walking in the door, because they're playing against that level of competition," Larry Butera said. "When I think about a Kelly Simmons, an Emileigh Scott, my daughter Grace, Jess — all these kids, they're all very mature, accountable and they don't make excuses. A lot of it is because they learned a lot about life through playing this game. What you're going to get from this experience in your life is going to far outweigh anything that happens to you in basketball. And I give a lot of that credit to Heather."
"It definitely prepares us to compete with the top players and top teams in the nation, so we're constantly playing against good competition, there is never a drop off," Grace Butera added. "Especially eighth grade is when the competition really started to step up and we were playing teams in seventh and eighth grade that are the same quality players as high school players or even better, so we were used to playing at that level. When we got to high school we were all prepared."
The AAU season is about six months long, starting around early March and ending in late August. Combined with practice time and tournaments during the season, the team spends a large portion of the year together. That camaraderie carries over to the high school season when Howard, Centennial, Atholton and Glenelg face off against each other during the year.
"It's pretty cool being able to play against each other and follow how everyone is doing," Simmons said. "There's a lot of trash talk before games (and during games). I played with Jess Foster since the seventh grade and every time at the free throw line, neither one of us can take each other seriously. It's always fun guarding each other. It's fun because sometimes refs might not know that we play with each other, so watching their reactions when we talk, they're like, 'Wait are you friendly or not?' That's always fun. Usually one of us will start laughing before the refs will say something."
Despite being on rival teams, Simmons said everyone supports one another's individual successes — which will likely continue as the year winds down, as the seven HoCo players on the Attitude are primed to get some end of the year recognition from their performances this year.
"One thing I noticed, especially from AAU, we're all genuinely happy about each other's successes," Simmons said. "So it's great to know we're all up there and everybody is getting recognition and we're all from the same team. So that's a pretty cool thing to watch as the season goes on."
There is only a few weeks separating the end of the varsity season and the start of AAU. Maryland Attitude has a full slate of tournaments lined up including the Nike National Invitational in Chicago, Run for the Roses in Lexington, Kentucky and Nike US Junior Nationals in Washington, DC. But bottom-line, their goal this season is to be crowned national champions.
"Pretty determined," said Simmons of winning the national tournament. "Especially because none of us go to the private schools that recruit, so a lot of the stuff we have to rely on… We all have to do a lot of stuff on our own time and dedicate a lot of stuff to do outside of practice. It just helps us get ready for national championship games and we realize we want to win. As cool as it is to say that we came in second… We have a big chip on our shoulders because we go into a lot of games and we kind of look like the under dog. A lot of times we are the under dog, but one of the biggest things is that we're all pretty versatile. You have five players who can go in the post or bring the ball down, hit a three or drop step in the post, so it's pretty cool."
It is the final year the Attitude will have the current 12 players on their roster. It is the junior class' (Butera, Scott, Vanegas and Jones) last chance at a national title, as they will move on from AAU ball after this season.
"It's going to be a lot different, but I'm sure we will still get together, go to each other's games in college, we're so tight now that I don't think we'll ever grow apart," Grace Butera said. "That's something that's really fun about it."
Although, as they go through the recruiting process, the girls realize the opportunity to play together or against each other at the collegiate level is very much a realistic one.
"It's funny because we all joke around about different schools that we're interested in and who will play who," Simmons added. "Sometimes we look at it and say like, 'You know we really could play together or we might end of playing against each other in different conferences.' It's pretty cool."
Simmons explained that the experience of playing AAU basketball has also benefited the high school game as well. With an excellent sophomore and freshmen class this season and a highly touted class coming in currently in eighth grade, she believes young athletes playing AAU basketball benefits Howard County and magnifies the talent in the county.
"It's really awesome to watch happen. Even last year too, there weren't a lot of upperclassmen that looked like they played AAU, but looking at the freshmen class that just came in and the kids that are coming in next year, they're playing AAU at a super high level," she said. "They're going to the big tournaments and it's great for Howard County; it's going to make Howard County a very respectable girls basketball county. I think now you have kids choosing to go to the public school route rather than go to private school because they can go play AAU and it's cool because it increases the competition."
As much fun as they have playing together on their AAU team or against each other during the high school season, the girls are ready to make a playoff push, as all four of their varsity team's are primed for a deep post-season run.