'Disability does not exist' for Indiana Deaf's 'dream team' by Matthew Tryon, Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS — There are so many places this story could start. We could start with the offense that doesn’t stop, or with the fact that there are eight players on the roster yet they still win by 30 points, or –
Or with the bashful leader who puts up some of the best numbers in the state but who no one knows, or –
Or we could start with the the banners on the walls that tell just part of the story of what’s happening within these walls, or with the cheerleaders flying through the air, or –
*Bang. Bang. Bang.*
OK, let’s start with the drum.
There’s a drum inside the Indiana School for the Deaf. Every time the undefeated Orioles score, and their girls basketball team does plenty of that, the drum bangs. They can’t hear it, but they can feel it. The vibrations reverberate throughout the gym, making it impossible to ignore.
And the story of what’s happening inside this gym, with this team? Once you hear it, you can’t ignore it either.
* * *
John Skjeveland is sitting atop the bleachers, and – like most people in the gym -- he’s smiling. And he has plenty of reasons to. The Orioles are winning big at halftime against International, and his daughter Courtney is a big reason why. The senior came into the game averaging 14.8 points, 6 assists and 6 steals per game. She’s everywhere all the time, and she has to be. The Orioles aren’t deep. They have eight players on the roster, total, and just five have extensive experience.
But he’s also smiling because of where she’s going. When she graduates, she’ll go to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. It’s the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. There, she can get an education, and she can keep playing basketball. And were it not for her experience at the Indiana School for the Deaf, and what she’s learned on and off the court, she might not be going there.
“It shows a lot about being a great team player and working together as one unit, just like the working world where you need to be able to work with anyone to achieve more,” Skjeveland said of what his daughter has learned in her four years playing for the Orioles. “Her calming leadership on the team is what I’m proud to see. (She) spreads that kind of positive vibe among all.
“She has blossomed so much during her high school years. She will look forward to continuing her journey as an athlete and scholar before the real world as great team player wherever she goes to.”
Skjeveland isn’t the only person in the gym who will attend Gallaudet next year. Anika Webster is a senior, and she’ll be going to Gallaudet to major in English. She’s one of nine people on the cheerleading squad, which is the largest it has ever been. But this is about more than cheerleading.
“Cheerleading is a way for me to express myself. It helps my self-confidence,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s a lot easier for me to socialize with people. Growing up, I’ve always had stage fright. Coming here and getting into the cheerleading squad, my confidence has grown so much. And cheerleading makes you feel like you can express yourself. You can build that spirit in the audience.”
The nine cheerleaders use the beat of the drum, too. At halftime, they pull out the tumbling mats and go spinning through the air. One goes somersaulting across the floor.
“Hearing cheerleaders (cheerleaders who are not hearing-impaired) are like, ‘How do you do that? You’re deaf?’ There’s no difference,” said Jennifer Alka, who has been coaching the team for 12 years. “We just don’t use our voices. We do everything the hearing cheerleaders do.”
If they can do this, co-coach Mimi Adams said, “they can achieve anywhere.”
“They come in and have no confidence, and they’re facing this crowd and they have to present,” Alka added. “We see this huge transformation, really within a few weeks. They blossom into this beautiful flower."
* * *
This isn’t just a feel-good story. The Orioles win, and do plenty of it. The school has banners commemorating deaf-school titles – five in football, one in boys cross-country, six in wrestling, eight in boys basketball, two in baseball, 15 in boys track and field, two in girls track and field, eight in volleyball, three in girls basketball, two in softball, one in girls swimming.
If you’re keeping track that’s 53 titles. National titles.
And this girls team, which has won its first eight games by an average of 30 points, is looking to add to that legacy. Amanda Huser is in her eighth season as the Orioles coach and has won 105 games in that span. While it’s early, this might be her best group yet.
The Orioles have plenty of size inside, with Anya Pothorski standing at 6-1 and Hannah Puent at 5-8. Pothorski is averaging 12.2 points and 10.7 rebounds, while Puent is averaging 20.3 points and 14.3 rebounds. Kalena Bumbala adds 10 points per game, while Skjeveland does a little bit of everything.
If the team has a weak point, it’s outside shooting – the team is shooting 17 percent from behind the arc – but with dominance inside and quick outlet passes leading to easy buckets, they’ve more than survived without hot shooting.
Puent, who averages the second-most rebounds in Class A and is among the leaders in scoring, quickly deflects credit for her success.
“We practice a lot. We practice hard. We look at what mistakes we made and we improve so we can play better the next time,” she said through an interpreter. “We have three awesome coaches that have taught us discipline and mental toughness.”
Her coach isn’t shy to praise the junior, who has been playing basketball “so long I don’t remember” when she started.
“She gives her whole heart,” Huser said of Puent through an interpreter. “She’s been in different leagues. She understands what it means to be an athlete. She grew up in a hearing world. She’s a team captain as well. It’s a real pleasure to coach her.
“Her whole heart is basketball. She has determination and passion. She really understands the game. She always takes feedback. She comes up and says, ‘Coach, what can I do? How can I be a better player?’ That’s very rare.”
The road could get tougher for the Orioles soon, with unbeaten University looming. But this group isn’t intimidated.
“I’ve been telling the girls that this team is showing excellence,” Huser said. “We’ve got our goals and we work toward them every day. I always look at what the girls have going for them. It’s like a puzzle to me. Do we have a good post player, a good forward, a good guard? Do we have a good shooter? I’ve never had all of that on one team. For me, this is the dream team. I’ve always wanted to coach this kind of a team.”
And besides, whatever this group accomplishes on the court pales in comparison to what it accomplishes off of it.
“When the students come to ISD, what the community calls a disability does not exist here,” Alka said. “We have our own identity as a community, and the deaf school is a great place for them because they’re all the same. They can relate to each other.”
Follow girls basketball insider Matthew VanTryon on Twitter @MVanTryon.