Seoul American girls prove they can hang with women
Unbeaten but untested.
That’s the 10,000-pound label that Seoul American’s girls basketball team had slung over its shoulders this season.
Talented they are, with the likes of All-Far East juniors Liz Gleaves and Destinee Harrison. But they’d gone unchallenged in Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference play.
Their average margin of victory: 39 points. Gleaves (averaging 13 points, five assists and six steals), Harrison (16 points, nine rebounds) and the rest of the starters average 10 minutes of play as games invariably go to the 40-point-lead "mercy rule" midway through the second quarter.
What the Falcons needed, both they and opponents said, was to be tested.
So, last weekend, coach Billy Ratcliff entered Seoul American in the Martin Luther King Birthday Invitational for post-level teams at Camp Humphreys.
Not only did the Falcons hold their own — they reached the championship game, believed to be the first DODEA KAIAC team to do so in a Korea post-level tournament. They beat a Yongsan Garrison team with four college veterans 45-44 and eliminated host Camp Humphreys 49-47 before running out of gas in the title game, losing to Osan and its four All-Service players 56-29.
"These games have been invaluable," Ratcliff said. "You’re playing three games a day against people physically bigger, faster and more experienced. That really notches it up."
"This is the best experience we could have possibly gotten," senior guard Maria Garcia said. "We needed teams like that to push us and we got more than that. We each learned something about our game. You can’t slack off for a minute. You have to bring your ‘A’ game. They didn’t go easy on us."
During the season, "we never had to fight for anything," Harrison said. "These teams made us fight back. It showed we can come back. We really stepped it up. Now, we’re ready for anything that comes up against us."
That includes, Ratcliff said, what lies ahead for the Falcons in the Far East Class AA Tournament next month.
"We’re hoping this type of experience will carry over, especially playing this kind of tournament," he said. "It will be a noticeable difference at Far East. These teams are better than any in DODDS and we hung with them."
Tournaments such as the MLK are open not just to post-level teams, but high school or Korean teams as well, organizer Ray Nichols said. The same referees who work Korea post-level games handle high school games and mentioned to Nichols that they might want to invite the Falcons.
"We saw how good they were and we invited them," Nichols said, adding that the feedback from the Falcons’ post-team opponents has been "positive."
Tony Reed coaches Yongsan Garrison’s men’s and women’s teams and has assisted Ratcliff and Falcons boys coach Steve Boyd in the past. The Falcons are deep, he says, with the likes of Diamond Person complementing a group that is built for now and the future, with just three seniors.
"All five of the starters are threats," Reed said. "They play together, they pass the ball, they communicate, they’re obviously well coached and they’re talented. I think they could be more competitive if they (regularly) face this level of competition. It’s good experience for them."
That the Falcons can hang with women as well as girls teams bodes well for a unit that was already very good when Ratcliff transferred to Seoul American from Vilseck, Germany.
The Falcons have won every KAIAC Division I title except three since 1987 and have been to the Class AA Final Four every year since 1995, winning the title in 2005 and 2006 and just missing the past two years.
This Seoul American team could be a classic "now and later" unit. Gleaves, Harrison, Person and backup forwards Larissa Arnold and Leyna Ratcliff will return, to be joined by Virginia AAU star Jordan Elliott and possibly by Nile C. Kinnick junior Shannon Jackson, who may transfer to Seoul, Ratcliff said.
"I like our chances," both now and in the future, Ratcliff said.
Unlike last year’s team, which was beset by injuries to Harrison and graduated star Devanee’ Taylor, the Falcons are for the most part healthy and are able to run the floor the way Ratcliff says he envisions.
"I had three people who could push the ball and two who couldn’t, and you end up with a half-court offense," Ratcliff said.
"I like to take advantage of numbers, 3-on-2, 3-on-1, things we couldn’t do last year. This year, I have so much more speed and we’ve been healthy and that makes a difference."
And there’s a certain hunger welling up inside the players. Gleaves, for one. She suffered mightily when the Falcons fell in the 2008 Class AA final 59-53 at Kadena, then last February when Lauren Cleope’s steal with 7.7 seconds left assured Faith of its 50-47 Class AA title win over the Falcons.
Ratcliff believes his Falcons will see Faith in the final again this year. "We’ll accept no less and we’ll be ready for them," Ratcliff said, adding that they’ve been studying film on themselves and Faith. "We’re five times the team we were that played in the championship. The girls are hungry. If they stay that way, we can take the banner."