When the La Monte Lady Vikings played Sacred Heart last week, they had another team sitting directly behind the bench rooting them on: Kevin Bucher and the State Fair Lady Roadrunners.
Two days later when State Fair hosted Three Rivers, Manuel Lujan and the Lady Vikings returned the favor, cheering on the Lady Roadrunners from just behind the SFCC bench.
“We wanted to see how the teams around here are,” said State Fair guard Adella Randle-El. “We wanted to go to La Monte and we’ve gotten really close with the young ladies and we enjoy being with them.”
Since the beginning of the semester, the Lady Roadrunners have been mentoring the La Monte girls basketball team. Lujan has known Bucher and State Fair athletic director Dannen Pannier for years and Lujan and Bucher talked about establishing a mentoring program even before Lujan became the coach of the Lady Vikings this season. When he was hired, he called Bucher.
“We would talk about Missouri girls basketball and the need to do more at the high school level,” Lujan said. “The opportunity presented itself. To get people to buy into it and see if it would work, it’s different. You never know who’s going to buy into it or not.”
When the Lady Roadrunners first came in to sit down with the Lady Vikings, they offered advise and encouragement, and fielded a few questions about what it took to play college basketball.
“They have to know how hard that they have to perform in order to play here,” Bucher said. “When we visit with them and talk with them, they ask what college basketball is all about. We’ve had several ballgames where we have gone and cheered them on and then talk to them afterwards. It’s just a great opportunity for us to give back to the community and really help a program that is wanting to develop and get better.”
The Lady Vikings heard about the amount of work that goes into being a college athlete, not only on the court, but in the classroom.
“When we had our first meeting they asked what was the difference between high school and college basketball and the answer was how much running they had to do,” Bucher said. “We expect to be one of the top teams in the region, we expect to be one of the top teams in the country.”
The current crop of State Fair players has bought into that idea and La Monte is starting to buy into Lujan’s system as well. Two years after a 3-19 finish, La Monte is 7-4 this year and won the Mid-State Conference Tournament.
“I think we’re fighting,” said La Monte’s Vada Demotte. “We got a new coach and it’s pretty hard to adapt, but he’s been pretty good. We get along, which helps. All the players have known each other forever. The chemistry is just great.”
State Fair’s calling card in recent years has been a tough defense. For La Monte, defense is taking center stage as well. Lujan installed a man-to-man defense in practice on Thursday
“I think we’re getting a lot better on defense,” Butts said. “We go hard on other teams and we work our legs a lot. To see them play, we’ve learned from how they play.”
So the Lady Vikings get a built-in cheering section dressed in blue and waving signs.
“It feels pretty good,” Butts said. “Especially when you’re playing Sacred Heart and their crowd’s pretty big. Having State Fair there, they were louder. It was pretty good.”
After the game, the State Fair players sat down and talked with the La Monte players again.
“We just tell them to play hard,” said State Fair sophomore guard Antoinette Taylor. “There are so many doors open for womens basketball and there are so many opportunities. Some girls don’t know that it’s in their hands. If they really want to do it they can. I tell them to do well in class, do well on the court and off the court.”
“It was a really good experience,” said La Monte guard Sandra Arroyo. “I like having somebody I can talk to about plays and have somebody who can tutor me and tell me more about basketball.”
Arroyo was specifically keeping an eye on State Fair’s Erin Boothe, watching “her speed and her quickness and her impact on the team,” Arroyo said.
Boothe goes after loose balls and always puts effort into defense and that’s the kind of player Arroyo wants to be.
Randle-El had mentors while she was growing up and is now the one doing the mentoring.
“They told me to keep going and pushed me,” she said.
“I never had the opportunity when I was young so I feel like I’m giving back to the community,” Taylor said.