The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

St. Theresa girls’ basketball: there’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’

Girls' basketball players learn about sports, language, culture while on the court

Published: February 23, 2024   
Dwain Hebda
The fifth-grade girls' basketball team at St. Theresa School includes Cate Garrett (left), a student at Our Lady of Fatima School in Benton and Stephanie Valenzuela. They are coached by Juan Valenzuela.

Juan Valenzuela loves basketball. He’s played it since he was a kid and continues to participate in adult leagues. He’s an avid Los Angeles Lakers fan, the kind that wears his purple and gold loyalties, literally, on his sleeve.
On top of all that, he’s a first-year volunteer coach at St. Theresa School in southwest Little Rock, in charge of the fifth-grade girls’ squad, of which his daughter Stephanie is a member.

“I wanted to become a coach and teach the game I love and give back to the younger generation,” he said. 

So began an odyssey that has held no shortage of challenges for the 33-year-old Valenzuela, his two assistant coaches and his cohort of young athletes. For one thing, there weren’t enough fifth graders to make a team, so four fourth graders were recruited. 

“First couple of practices with all the girls there, it was a difficult challenge,” Valenzuela said. “I’d played for so many years and coaching different skill levels, it was an adjustment teaching these girls who are beginning with the basics. I had to find out who could dribble, who knows about the game.

“The first practice, I asked them a question, ‘Who knows what a double dribble is? Point guard? Shooting guard? Who knows the positions in basketball?’ None of them knew anything.”

The team was augmented by the addition of Cate Garrett, a fifth grader from Our Lady of Fatima School willing to make the drive from Benton in order to have a team to play for. 

“Cate speaks English very well. Mary Belle speaks English very well. My daughter Stephanie speaks English very well,” Valenzuela said. “But my other girls, Emily, Julianna, they’re from Mexico. And my other one, Bella, is from Guatemala, and they speak Spanish very well. I had to coach in English, stop and translate in Spanish so everybody could understand.”

The girls who started out as strangers became teammates in the essential sense of the word, helping each other to not only learn the game, but truly learn something about each other as people.

“I didn’t really know (the other girls) until basketball,” point guard Stephanie Valenzuela said. “I started talking to them at school, and I met Cate at her birthday party and at the gym. Now I’m starting to get to be good friends with them. We play outside. I’m friends with the whole team.”

Garrett, who also plays point guard, said she wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of meeting all new teammates or forging relationships. She said the process has been as rewarding as the sport itself.

“I’ve been teaching some of the girls that only speak Spanish some English, and they’ve been teaching me Spanish. So we kind of translate back and forth,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to learn Spanish, a language that I don’t know. They’ve taught me a lot, and I’ve taught them a lot too.”

“It has been wonderful watching them and seeing how they’re learning and picking up the skills and how they’re picking up the language to talk to each other,” Coach Valenzuela said. “In the beginning, they didn’t know how to talk to each other, they didn’t know how to communicate, and now they’re goofing around and becoming friends.

“If I’m over here explaining to Cate and Mary Belle in English, I’ve got my co-captain, Julianna, in the background translating into Spanish so they can communicate on the floor. They help each other understand, and it’s pretty wonderful watching them grow from where they started and where they are now.”

With everything the team had to deal with just to field a team, Valenzuela admitted he had to learn to temper his competitive streak and expectations for success on the court. Yet after four games, the Panthers have already notched a victory and watching them practice yields just how much fondness they’ve already developed for each other. Talking to some of the players, it’s clear the team is learning something far more important than the game itself.

“I love meeting new people,” Stephanie Valenzuela said. “We talk and get along and I respect that and we’ve become friends.”

“We just have to work together and state what we believe in,” Garrett said. “We have to work together like Jesus would have worked with his apostles.”

Bishop Taylor wants you to know more about your faith & the Church: Sign up for Arkansas Catholic's free digital edition.

Please read our Comments Policy before posting.

Article comments powered by Disqus