By Jacqueline Hale
Number 27 held the ball at mid-range, just above the foul line.
He looked towards the basket, leapt from the ground, heaved the ball into the air and watched it fall into the net.
The crowd went crazy.
“It felt pretty good,” seventh-grader Henry Rodriguez said with a grin.
It was the second quarter of the first game of the season. His school, Ocean Studies Charter School, was playing against another local middle school, Key Largo School. Parents, teachers and friends cheered from the sidelines.
The setting was not much different than any other first game of a middle school basketball season. But for this team and this school, they all witnessed history.
The 2022-23 Ocean Studies Charter School boys and girls basketball teams are the first sports teams in school history. And Rodriguez scored the school’s first points.
For several years, Kevin Cornaire had coached for Florida Keys Youth Basketball League, a co-ed recreational league. But with his twin girls, Natalie and Naiya, now in middle school, he wanted to see them play on an all-girls team. Willing to take on whatever responsibilities to make it happen, Cornaire proposed the idea of forming a school team to Ocean Studies.
“First we had to see how many girls were going to be interested,” Cornaire said. “My kids came home from school the next day and said, ‘We’re getting basketball.’ They already had a list of all the kids who wanted to play.”
With enough interest, everything else quickly fell into place. Cornaire took the role of head coach of the girls team, and middle school math teacher Kevin Ferger became head coach of the boys team, with social studies teacher Chandler Day as the assistant coach on both teams. They ordered uniforms and came up with a team name – the snappers, short for snapping turtles. They met for their first practices Oct. 4, 2022 and played their first games Nov. 15, 2022.
In the three months since the teams formed, the coaches have seen growth both on and off the court. Of the 11 girls and 10 boys, almost half had never played basketball before. The students that have experience are stepping out of their comfort zone to lead and encourage their teammates. The students that have not played before are transforming in their play and comfort-level on the court.
“One student that has never touched a basketball before, when you see him out on the court now, you can see it in his eyes – he’s aggressive. He wants the ball,” Day said.
According to the coaches, the lessons the students are learning — leadership, perseverance, teamwork, motivation, sense of purpose, responsibility in upholding grades, time management — are what makes having a school basketball team so impactful at this middle school age.
“It’s totally different personalities from school to on the court,” Ferger said. “They may be quieter or goofy in class and then they get on the court, and the eye of the tiger takes over and they’re all fired up and ready to go. It’s really cool to see them using all of their personality.”
Some students are taking academics more seriously, have a closer relationship to their coaches, and are finding a place to belong in school.
“It’s really helped build the community in our middle school,” Christi Daugherty, Rodriguez’s mother and middle school English teacher, said. “The girls team and the boys team, they’ve been so supportive and always pumping each other up. It’s awesome. It’s made a better family experience at the school.”
Despite these achievements, the Ocean Studies basketball team is still seeking its first win.
Not only is it a new program with many students who have never played before, Ocean Studies is a small school. Ocean Studies began its sixth grade middle school program only the year before and added the seventh and eighth grade programs this year. The entire middle school has less than 50 students. In addition, the teams are young. The girls team is only fifth and sixth graders, and the boys team has only one eighth grader. They play against the larger and more established programs at Plantation Key School, Key Largo School, Marathon and Treasure Village Montessori.
Regardless of the no-win record, they remain hopeful.
“I think what’s great about our team, and we’re even so surprised every time we hear them talk, is how positive they are remaining because it’s really hard, especially with the emotions of middle schoolers, to go through these losses but still remain positive and continue to push themselves in practices and games to get better,” Day said. “It’s really teaching them perseverance. It’s teaching them that they’re not in this alone. They have a team with them.”
Whether wins or losses, the teams see a bright future.
“We’re going to come back next year, and we’re going to win some,” Rodriguez said. “Go, Ocean Studies.”
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