As visible as it is on the court, it also is apparent in the voice of coach Mike Philo just how far the Foothills Lady Heat have come.
In the four years since the Lady Heat have been playing AAU basketball, they’ve grown into the game and improved from a very raw squad to one that will compete at the eighth-grade AAU Division I National Championship tournament July 7-12 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla.
Speaking about the progress he has seen in these girls — who come from Northville, Mayfield, Broadalbin and Gloversville — Philo’s voice changes. Rattling off numbers and names of tournaments was easy, but talking about how rewarding it has been as a coach, his voice became more measured, working to maintain composure under a rush of pride.
“It is incredible,” Philo said. “It is so satisfying. I’m kind of at a loss for words, except to say I am so proud of them. I know the work they’ve put in, I know the struggles they’ve come through, coming from schools where basketball isn’t really a focus in the school.”
Philo’s daughter Harmony, a Gloversville student, is the lone seventh-grader. Other Gloversville girls on the team include Kerri Hauser, Jasmine Gonzalez, Alex Benfatti, Gabby Langley and Gabby Brown. Jacklyn Akey is from the Broadalbin-Perth school district, Jesse VanNostrand hails from Northville and Mayfield is represented by Sydney Sheldon and Camryn Meca.
Philo also is president of the Foothills Hoop Club, which runs several AAU teams for boys and girls. He and fellow volunteer coaches James Sheldon, Harley Fuller and Shawn Flynn have guided these girls since they were a group of nine fifth-graders and one fourth-grader.
Now, they’re nine eighth-graders and one seventh-grader who have held their own with ninth-grade teams.
“We were not very good, that first year. We played in six tournaments that first year and only won five games, but they never quit,” Philo said. “They took to playing pick-up basketball in the summer, they’ve done numerous camps in the summers. They stuck with it. As sixth-graders, they got a little bit better, and last year, they took off. So this year, my idea was to push them.”
They are 24-6 this season, including a 15-3 mark against ninth-grade teams.
The Lady Heat became eligible for the trip to Orlando by winning the Red Hawks Rumble, a district qualifier, May 17-18.
They will compete in the Division I group against 29 other teams from around the nation.
To cut the cost of the travel and hotel accommodations, the Lady Heat are raising funds this weekend. Today, there will be a coin drop as well as a bottle and can donation at Food & Fuel in Mayfield and the Amsterdam Country Feed store.
The team is also selling 50/50 tickets through Tuesday, and raffle tickets for two prizes — a fishing trip and a two-night stay at Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid.
Anyone wishing to make a donation who can’t get to one of the locations mentioned above can contact Philo at 321-9613 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or can mail a donation to 109 6th Ave., Gloversville, N.Y., 12078.
Philo came to the area from Saratoga Springs, and knew the kind of feeder programs and youth programs schools operated in that area. There wasn’t a whole lot along those lines in Fulton County when he moved there. His goals for the Foothills Hoop Club, for this team in particular, have already been reached, regardless of how the Lady Heat finish in Orlando.
“My goal then was to get these kids to achieve the highest level of play they possibly could,” he said. “I wanted them to be able to compete with those girls over there, and they’ve done that. They’ve actually surpassed any expectations I ever had when this started.”