Rock Hill Elite ready to bring title home

The Rock Hill Elite AAU basketball team will compete in a national competition in Florida next week.
The Rock Hill Elite AAU basketball team will compete in a national competition in Florida next week.

In the middle of the youth-league games and the pestering of Mom for change for the vending machines, a group of kids stood out.

They looked too serious to be what they were -- a bunch of pre-teens on the basketball court. There were the smiles and the joking around, but when called to attention, the Rock Hill Elite snapped to it.

"They don't act like kids when they're on the court," coach Warren Vinson said.

The Elite begin playing in the AAU 11-and-under/5th grade boys basketball Division I national championship tournament Monday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. To get there, they had to qualify by doing well in a district tournament (second place) and then by placing in the state tournament.

Placing wasn't good enough for the Elite -- they went ahead and won state, earning a No. 1 seed. Now all they have to do is outlast 76 other teams from across the nation and they can add another prize to the trophy case.

Clustered for a team picture, holding a golden basketball on a pedestal and several medals slung around their thin necks, the Elite goofed on each other in front of The Freedom Temple's gymnasium as their parents and coaches tried to corral them. Some were coming right out of recreational basketball games and about to play another.

Some were just hanging out.

"I play because that's what my dad taught me," said Devan Thacker, who attends Sullivan Middle School. "I've been playing since I was a little kid."

Informed he's still a little kid, Thacker smiled.

"Since I was 5," he amended.

The Elite will jump in the van for the trip to Florida this weekend and play their first game at 2:40 p.m. on Monday. They got a break with their matchup -- winning the state tournament put them in Pool P with teams from Texas, Virginia and a familiar opponent from North Carolina.

Rock Hill plays the N.C. Gaters in the first game, a pleasant surprise after beating the Gaters earlier this year. Vinson, whose son Warren also plays on the team, sees it as a fortunate break and a chance for more.

Playing on a strange court might be a hindrance, but at least it's against a team he's already seen. And the Gaters are the kind of program, drawing from a large base, the Elite want to be.

"We beat them and they got a pretty good organization," Vinson said. "I think we can win again, unless they picked up some superstars."

Vinson relies on fundraising and sponsorships to get the entry fees for the tournaments the Elite plays. The national tag checked in at $625, but with the team playing so well and a good chance of sticking around this week, it's worth it.

Perhaps a good showing could build the team's drawing power. Vinson only has nine players, seven from Rock Hill and two from Charlotte.

"Our parents do anything to help out because we're club basketball," he said. "(The Gaters) are a really big organization."

It's a chance for glory and for setting up a solid future. All Vinson has to worry about now is surviving a lengthy van ride with a load of rowdy 11-year-olds.

"Going to be a little cramped," Vinson admitted, "but we need all the kids together. We're looking forward to it."

DAaron Colston

Jamil Simpson

Warren Vinson

Devan Thacker

Isaac Simms

Mustafia Love

Kevan Cook

Montez McCullough

Lasalle Cunningham

Coach: Warren Vinson

Assistant coach: William Cook