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Middlebury women's basketball team members with their junior high counterparts.

Sisters in Sport: everyone wins in this fast-break mentoring program

March 16, 2009

By Anne Runkel '11

A dozen seventh grade girls excitedly kick off their snow boots and race one another to lace up their tennis shoes before entering the gym. As the door opens, the sound of basketballs bouncing up and down fills the room. A Middlebury College student sees the girls, puts the basketball she is holding under one arm, and beckons the seventh graders onto the court. The seventh graders grab balls and join the college players, ready for fun.

During the basketball season, the Middlebury College women's basketball team and seventh graders from Middlebury Union Middle School participate in Sisters in Sport. The Middlebury students work with the seventh grade girls as both mentors and as basketball teammates.

Members of the Middlebury women's basketball team cheer on their junior high friends at a game during a Sisters in Sport event.

Middlebury alumna Leslie Wright founded Sisters in Sport in 2001 as a part of STRIDE: The Wright Foundation for Female Athletes. STRIDE is dedicated to enhance and promote the advancement of female athletes in society. Sisters in Sport, and the other STRIDE programs, provide girls an opportunity to have role models who are not only athletes, but who are also dedicated college students.

The seventh grade girls who participate in STRIDE learn various basketball skills, get to know the college students, and also learn a bit about themselves. Alexandra Sheldrick, an eighth grader who participated in Sisters in Sport last year, explains how much she learned from the program, "At first I was a little scared of them because they were a lot older than me, but once we practiced with them I found out that they were a lot like us, just older."

Middlebury women's basketball coach Noreen Pecsock also encourages the girls to see how similar they are to one another, "I say to them: I am going to give you 10 minutes to come up with all the things you two have in common that don't have anything to do with sports, and I think it is so powerful because they don't think they have anything in common, and now here are these attractive, confident, silly, 20-year-old girls, and the seventh graders think, wow, I really could be like that." Molly, an eighth grader who also participated in Sisters in Sport last year, explains, "You think of them as a different species, you would never imagine it, but they are surprisingly similar to us." Middlebury sophomore Lauren Sanchez also agrees, "It is really nice to be around 13, 14, 15 year olds, whose interests and priorities are so different, but we still find a lot of similarities."

Sisters in Sport has had a considerable impact on both the seventh grade girls and their counterparts. Junior Vicenta Hudziak explains how fun and rewarding it is to work with younger female athletes, "It's most rewarding because they really have fun and they love it, and we have fun too. On the team we are all here because we love basketball and it is fun to share that with the kids and encourage them to continue."

Coach Pecsock also believes that the college students benefit tremendously from the Sisters in Sport program. "To get into Middlebury is a lot of work, to succeed at Middlebury is a lot of work, and the students spend a large amount of their time trying to please and impress others, and I think it is important that they see the impact they can have on other people already, not just eventually, but already."

Not only do the "sisters" practice together, they are also part of each other's side-line cheerers. Leslie Wright, founder of STRIDE, states, "The middle school girls make posters and signs and cheer on the college girls, and then next time the college girls cheer on the seventh grade girls." Eighth grader Sheldrick loved having college athletes supporting them. "They came and watched one of our games, they knew all of our names and they just cheered us on, one by one, when we took our foul shots and everything." The seventh grade team also cheers on the Middlebury College students during their games.

After practice and drills are over, the college students head to the locker room, offering a generous dose of encouragement to their young friends. One seventh grader teases the college girls and tells them that they are the ones who did a good job. Among the range of heights, ages, and basketball skill levels, these girls are more similar than they appear. They are all young women athletes who have dedicated hours to the sport that they love and are sharing that love with friends.