By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
The Winchester Rising Stars are at it again.
The Amateur Athletic Union program, which has been so successful over the years, is sending four teams to the national tournament over the next few weeks.
The seventh-grade boys team will play in the national tournament in Memphis, Tenn. starting Sunday. The tournament runs through July 1. The sixth-grade boys team will play in nationals in Hampton from July 16-22. The sixth-grade girls team will play in Franklin, Tenn. from July 1-6. The eighth-grade girls team will play in nationals from July 3-8 at the Disney World Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Some of the players on the Rising Stars eighth-grade girls team, coached by Easton McDonald, began playing together in October. Then in February, the second part of their season began, which included new tryouts for the team.
Rachel Funkhouser, Kelsey Jenkins and Meredith Phillips weren't part of the Winchester Rising Stars program until February. The Shenandoah County trio had played for three years with the Shenandoah County Wave, but they all three had worked some with Stars' founder Erick Green. He encouraged the trio to consider playing for the Stars.
"Rachel, Kelsey and I were on a team before and we went down to [the Youth Development Center] with Erick Green to play in his tournament and he told us we could come down here to build up our skills a little more, going into high school," Phillips said. "I went to a Broadway tournament, I wasn't playing and I was just kind of scoping it out. I saw this team and I said 'I think they're my age,' so I went over to Erick [Green] and he said 'yeah, tryouts are soon.' I called up Rachel and Kelsey and we went and tried out and we made it."
Phillips said the three were excited to join the program.
"We were all nervous to tryout, but you know [the Rising Stars] were nice about it," she said. "It's a great experience because we are winning, which is always good."
Funkhouser, Jenkins and Phillips have been playing together for years, and have become good friends. They said it really helps that they are still playing together on the same team.
"It's really fun," Funkhouser said of playing with her two friends. "Merth [Phillips] is hilarious, and Kelsey and me are really tight."
The three don't always play together. Phillips will play for Central this year, while Funkhouser and Jenkins play for Strasburg.
Last year Phillips played against the Strasburg pair in girls basketball junior varsity games. Central won both games.
We're close, but rivals at the same time," Phillips said. We get along with it. It's all right. I mean they get mad that Central wins. I told them that's just the way it has to be."
"It's really fun when we play against them in regular season on JV," Funkhouser said of playing Phillips and Central. "It's really competitive. And she normally wins because she has a bigger school, but it's been a lot of fun to play against them. Hopefully, we can actually beat them this year."
For now the three get to play together and try to help the Rising Stars to another National Championship. The program has won two over the years and the eighth-grade team has a chance to add to that.
Things did not come easy for the Stars in the state tournament. They lost for the first time this season in their final pool-play game against the Loudoun Extreme.
"I think its better than we lost that game instead of the state game, because we realized that we have to work harder," Jenkins said. "We realized what we had to do better next time."
Despite the loss, the Stars were already in the semifinals, but had to play a very tough and bigger Richmond Crossovers squad.
"It was this big intimidating team," Phillips said of the Crossovers. "They ran around the whole court, and then they did our little chant. We got out there and we beat them."
Then the Stars found themselves playing in the state final against the Loudoun Extreme. The Stars had beaten the Extreme earlier in the season, and losing to them just the day before helped motivate them to win the state title.
Not only did the win help get them to nationals, but the redemption made it even sweeter.
"It was the fist time I cried tears of joy," Phillips said. "I could honestly say that. Because we just love each other so much. We were all hugging and all really excited."
The sixth-grade girls team is coached by Sherando girls basketball coach Kevin Reed and Tammi Green, Erick's wife. They both have daughters on the team.
They have nine players from eight different middle schools, including Ayanna Strother, who attends Peter Muhlenberg Middle School.
Reed said a key to the team's success has been that they play as a team.
"It's not about one player on this team, it's about the team," Reed said. "And that's why were so good because everybody is capable."
Reed said they lost their first game of the season a few weeks ago to a team they had defeated earlier in the year, but he thinks it was good for his players to experience the loss.
Last year the team went to nationals, but didn't fare real well, and they're looking for a little redemption this year.
"I feel like we're really good, we'll go far for nationals," Maddie Green said. "We're looking to win this year."
Reed said he loves the confidence his team has.
"There's no question they expect to win a national championship," Reed said. "That's the thing that I love about them and that coach [Tammi] Green loves about them is they expect to win, and they don't expect it to be handed to them. They're willing to earn victory. They expect to be in the championship game of every tournament we play and they have been."
The eighth-grade team is also confident about their chances. This will be the first trip to nationals for most of them, so it will be a new experience, but one they are looking forward to.
"I don't know what it will be like, but then again that's what we were saying when we were going into states," Phillips said of playing in nationals. "Who knows? We could win it all, and then that would be crazy."
The eighth-grade girls team has been doing some fundraising to help pay for the trip. Donations or sponsorship can be made to Winchester Rising Stars, Easton McDonald, P.O. Box 1451, Winchester, Va., 22604.