York coaches promote education

A longstanding legacy of York Comprehensive High School girls’ basketball coaches has ended this spring with the retirement from coaching of Arsonia Stroud, Cristi Kemp and me, Paula Blackwell. The three of us combined for 72 total years of coaching.

Kemp and I are still teaching in the district with 20 years of experience each. As for myself, I’m not ruling out a return to the sidelines in the future at a local York County school.

I wanted to share with The Herald readers my experience as well as to celebrate the careers of my colleagues. Hopefully, our longstanding tenure will encourage other females to become leaders in their communities not only by teaching but also coaching and serving as assistant athletic directors or athletic directors. Now, more than ever, our young athletes need to see that women can hold these positions and be successful in the process.

When locals think of York girls’ basketball, they immediately think of Ivory Latta and the state championship runs of 2000-2002, and rightfully so. Ivory is the most successful male or female athlete from York. She currently plays in the WNBA and serves as an assistant coach for the University of North Carolina women's basketball team.

In all fairness, though, York girls’ basketball has been so much more than just this time frame. Stroud got it going in the mid ’90s with a AAA state runner-up finish in 1996. Kemp joined as a JV coach in 1997, then I came aboard in 1999 after a coaching stint at Virginia Commonwealth University. We have combined for three state and upper-state championship appearances and seven regional titles.

We all three wanted to win, and we instilled that into our players. But we also wanted to teach respect, character, dignity and fairness to all. We demanded excellence in the classroom and taught students to become servants of our community.

Female athletes’ chances of becoming professional athletes are very slim, and while we encouraged every player to strive to reach her dreams, we also spoke of the reality that after graduating from college they needed to have a good education. We pushed the college-going culture, and most of our players were first-generation college students!

We brought in former players, local women who had successful careers, to talk about their career paths. It was so rewarding to see a player from a poverty-stricken family stay the course and receive a college degree. We have had so many players succeed in college or open up their own businesses, and 97 percent of them never put on a basketball uniform after they graduated from YCHS. They are living successful lives across the United States.

York is a small town, and to coach here you have to really know and understand each family and their history. Arsonia Stroud spent 42 years with the district, so she really knew the people and passed this on to me. She knew who was struggling to put food on their tables, and paying money to get in a basketball game to see their daughter play was not always realistic. She also knew the people who made ends meet but would also give the next person the shirt off of their backs, as well as the people who were financially established and always gave back to the community.

We, as a staff, wanted all of our players to be able to go to summer camps, have team shoes and really feel the team concept. This is where the fundraising really began for us.

We worked many Friday-night 50-50 tables at the football games, at basketball camps, York Recreation Center Saturdays and tournaments. We sold lollipops and doughnuts so that the players at York could have what the surrounding schools’ players had. Not only did we work but so did the players and their parents.

The past few years we have been able to buy a pair of shoes for every JV and varsity player, send money down to York Middle School to help offset their players’ shoe costs, provide players with a meal before every game and help those parents who couldn't afford to get into games. Coaching the youth at York Recreation Center also allowed us to know who our future players would be beginning in the second grade.

I've always believed that coaching is a calling, not a job, and if you really love it as I do, then you have never worked a day in your life.

I love the heartbeat of the people in York and how they will work two or three jobs so their child can have it better than they did. Growing up in a small town myself (Pacolet), I can relate to the struggle and sacrifices these people make every day.

But they don't expect preferential treatment for their children because of it. They roll up their sleeves and go to work, and their children are learning so much from them, as do I.

The three of us have been a mainstay for York, and we have had the opportunity to coach against so many local coaches who have come and gone throughout the years. We want to thank each of them for their support and the desire we all have to keep pushing female athletics forward. I also pray for the York administration as they find our replacements, and hope for continued stability in the future, because the young ladies of the York school district deserve this.

Thank you to our former players, managers, parents, teachers, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, maintenance men and local businesses who sponsored our teams. We wish the current and future Lady Cougars the best at YCHS and in the future, and love to keep hearing from our former players as they journey through life.

We can rest easy knowing that we left this program in great shape!

Paula Blackwell is former head coach for the York Comprehensive High School varsity girls’ basketball team.