As Kacy Williams, she set a still-standing basketball assist record at Hammond and was named The Sun's Female Athlete of the Year in 1994 before going on to star at Georgetown.

Now, as Kacy Valentine, she teaches seventh-graders at Cradlerock School in Columbia, using many of the lessons she learned in high school and college to excel as a classroom instructor and mentor.

Valentine, 33, says she has always "loved things that are hard." It is the challenge that keeps her interested. It was true in basketball, and it is true in teaching.

In basketball, the struggle came when she was a high school freshman: She went to the Amateur Athletic Union national championship tournament as a member of a Howard County all-star team that lost every game by an average of 29 points. She then found herself on a rebuilding team at Hammond.

"It didn't seem right" to lose, says Valentine, who was accustomed to winning as a member of the Columbia Challenge travel team during her middle school years. "I had come from a program that won all the time. But the Hammond team had gone 1-20 the year before I went there, and my freshman year we were 12-12. But I committed to the basketball team, and that was the turning point. Later, when I struggled initially with teaching, I could remember those days and recognize that with prayer and hard work, it came out all right."

The Golden Bears went 24-1 in Valentine's senior year, and from 1990 to 1994 she scored 1,216 points and found teammates so often that she set the school's career assist record at 533. Hammond won two state titles during that stretch.

"She was the perfect point guard," says her coach at Hammond, Joe Russo, who is now the school's athletic director. "She didn't care how many points she scored as long as someone scored and the team won. We won 64 games in a row with her at one point. She was a great passer, a great ball-handler and very intelligent."

At Georgetown, where she majored in English and literature, Valentine set the Hoyas' career assist record (436) in 1998.

After graduating, she worked at City Springs Elementary in Baltimore for four years before moving to Cradlerock.

"I struggled with classroom management, and I had to learn a lot about being consistent and demanding the best of myself and my students," Valentine says.

But she has had a lot of experiences to draw from. She remembers a high school game her junior year in which the Bears were losing by 18 points at the half to upset-minded Howard. Russo took the team to the locker room and "laid each and every one of us out," Valentine says. He told each one - in front of her teammates - what she had done wrong, what was expected and what they were going to do in the second half.

"We had the best comeback," Valentine says. "That's where I gained knowledge about knowing what needs to be said and not to be afraid to say it."

And at City Springs, she learned how to pray.

"Not to pray for a specific thing I wanted, but to pray that I would be prepared to handle whatever came my way," Valentine says. "Teaching plans are a little like basketball game plans. You can plan a wonderful plan, but spontaneity takes over and you have to be able to adjust to the reality of what is going on."

Tonight, she will cozy down with her husband of 10 years, Craig Valentine, and their children, Satori, 7, and Anthony, 4, to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" - as they do every year. Valentine said her husband is a Jimmy Stewart fan and that she feels a kinship with Stewart's character, George Bailey, who struggles to do what's right and asks God to help him.

"I just love that movie," she said. "He's so unselfish and never stops doing things for others. In the end, they recognize him for it, and God lifts his burden. Prayer has always been a big part of my life from childhood. From sports to now, teaching and being a mom, prayer has grown in me, lifted the burden and helped me to solve each new challenge on my own."

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