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Want to see premium athletes in action? Check out girls' basketball

Big Ten champion Maryland women's basketball team react after learning who they will play in the NCAA tournament. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

I grew up watching and playing basketball. I learned from my dad how to play, and it is something that we share to this day. When I was in high school, he was in the stands keeping stats of our team and giving feedback (even if it was unwanted by me).

At almost every game, the stands were sparsely filled with parents like him and a sprinkling of students. Almost none of my peers attended the games to support our team. Even if our game was back-to-back with a boys’ game, my peers would attend the boys’ game and then leave before the start of the girls’ game. I felt hurt because the hard work we put into the sport was not appreciated, other than by our parents, whose attendance was practically mandatory. It didn’t matter if we won or lost because either way, nobody would talk about our success or failures. When I went home, women’s basketball (whether high school, college, or professional) was rarely featured on television, and we didn't have any well-known role models to look up to. As a female athlete, I felt invisible, as did many of my teammates.

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Today, I officiate at girls’ basketball through the Baltimore Board of Women’s Sports (BBOWS), and I have noticed that not much has changed since I played basketball. Many people still consider the WBNA and women's basketball to be a joke. At girls’ high school basketball games, the bleachers are lined almost exclusively with parents. Even though I appreciate their support, I’m disappointed by the lack of recognition from both student peers and the surrounding community.

A group of Catonsville mothers are taking the nursery rhyme `Row, row your boat' to heart. Erica Mah, Trish Miller, Kathleen Cummings, Julie Baldi, Andrea Sommers, Christy Durst, Barbara Schuessler, Kelly Fox and Mo Rosenbloom are part of a group that has taken to rowing like a bird takes to flight, despite having little previous experience with the sport.

As I work the games around the city, I can appreciate the talent I see on the floor, and I can definitively say our female athletes exhibit strength, dedication and speed. The community needs to step up — and show up — for these girls and give them the recognition they deserve for their hard work.

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In addition to showing up to the games to support our athletes, I also think that we need to help others understand that women’s sports are not boring. There are still stereotypes that female athletes are weak and less-skilled than their male counterparts. Earlier this year, videos of spectacular one-handed dunk by Fran Belibi, a high school senior in Colorado and two-time member of the USA National Team, went viral and proved that notion wrong. Fran first started playing basketball during her freshman year in high school, and by her senior year, she blew the skeptics out of the water with her talent and strength.

Even though very few female basketball players can dunk the basketball like Fran, there are many other athletes who also have extraordinary talents on the court worth watching.

I became a basketball referee because I wanted a way to support female athletes. When I am on the floor, I am going to work my hardest to make sure that the game is as safe and fair as possible. I also admire watching the players grow from year to year. Their hard work is appreciated, and it is such a joy to watch the hard work in action, no matter the level of the game.

Female basketball athletes of all ages may be able to fit into Under Armour Currys and Nike Air Jordans for girls or women, but they have far fewer options if they’re looking for basketball shoes named after a female star.

Now that the Super Bowl is over and you have watched the Patriots win again, I encourage you to turn your heads to high school girls’ basketball and also support these female athletes throughout the end of the season and through the playoffs.

The IAAMS Conference is hosting the state championship games on Sunday, Feb. 17th from 2-8 p.m. at Mustang Stadium in Owings Mills, while the MPSSAA Championships are held a month later, on Saturday, March 16th from 1-9 p.m. at SECU Arena in Towson.

Let’s not underestimate the strength and ferocity of these players. Show up to support their talents and abilities — and to be blown away by them.

Kjerstin Lewis referees girls’ basketball through the Baltimore Board of Women’s Sports. Her email is kjerstinjl@comcast.net.

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