In boys AAU basketball: Orleans County Challengers go to the nationals

Pictured are the Orleans County Challengers.  In the back row, from left to right, are: Shelly Lanou, Priscilla Stebenne, Isaiah Braithwaite, Ajay Warner, Drew Drageset, Dalton Gentley, Evan Inkel, and Albert Stebenne.  In the front are:  Matthew Menard, Braydon Leach, Landyn Leach, Dillon Stebbins, and Connor Lanou.  Photo courtesy of Martha Braithwaite

Pictured are the Orleans County Challengers. In the back row, from left to right, are: Shelly Lanou, Priscilla Stebenne, Isaiah Braithwaite, Ajay Warner, Drew Drageset, Dalton Gentley, Evan Inkel, and Albert Stebenne. In the front are: Matthew Menard, Braydon Leach, Landyn Leach, Dillon Stebbins, and Connor Lanou. Photo courtesy of Martha Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle July 23, 2014

by Isaiah Braithwaite

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — We are the Orleans County Challengers. Players from Glover, Irasburg, Albany, Orleans and Derby compete for us. We got together for our first practice in March after our junior high basketball season ended. Despite being competitors just days before, we all immediately got along. Not only playing basketball but off the court, too, we were all friends before teammates.

It was obvious in our first game, that in Vermont, we would be a force to be reckoned with, scoring 79 points in our first game together. After four tournaments, with four games in each one, we were champions — we hadn’t lost a single game.

Finally we were at the state tournament, against the best teams in Vermont. We played our final against our somewhat rivals, the Rutland Bandits. We won, and celebrated crazily.

After we got our trophies, our coaches gathered us with all our families and told us we had qualified for the National Seventh Grade AAU Basketball Tournament in Tennessee. Then we were asked who would go and be willing to help raise the funds we would need. We all raised our hands and it was official, we were headed to Memphis. We had one more Vermont tournament and suffered our first loss against Central Vermont U, finishing our Vermont season 23-1. Then in the fund-raising and preparation, we began to realize our dreamlike opportunity to go to the nationals.

The trip

We all left on Friday, June 27, prepared for the road trip ahead to Memphis. The majority of our team stuck together and spent Friday and Saturday nights in hotel rooms along the way, while my mother and I drove straight there. Most people stayed in Nashville on Saturday night, having finally reached Tennessee. On Sunday we all met up for registration at South Wind High School, ready for the long-anticipated tournament to kick off.

Finally we had all arrived and we gathered for our official team picture. We then joined the masses of teams trying to register. Once we entered the auditorium we went from a crowded, loud, hot hall to the cool, wide-open auditorium of South Wind. After our coaches finished registering us, the team met at our hotel and checked in. We had dinner as a team and got ready for the week ahead.

On Monday morning, all the teams had to go to the gym for opening ceremonies. Once all 76 Division II teams had packed into the bleachers, the ceremony started. Many important people from the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) organization and people from Memphis gave speeches, including city councilmen and women, local state representatives, and an NBA agent. By the time the speaking was over, we were all antsy to play some basketball.

The tournament

Monday afternoon we played a team from Indiana who, compared to us, were monsters. They were big and fast. After the game they congratulated us for playing hard. They said they had been in our shoes last year, their first year at the national tournament. They hadn’t won a game.

The second team we faced was a Bay Area Florida team that, among the teams in our “pool,” got the farthest in the tournament.

Then came a close loss to a hometown team from Memphis on Wednesday. We were evenly matched, but our loss concluded our pool play. We finished last in our pool and went into the Classic tournament. Thursday we got matched against a much taller team from Tennessee who ended our time in the National Seventh Grade AAU Basketball Tournament.

Even though in Nationals we went 4-0, just getting there was a huge honor. We ended the season winning five out of seven tournaments, with a record of 23-5. That is something to be proud of for a team in their first year together.

But our trip wasn’t just a team effort. While many AAU clubs have corporate sponsors and even the support of NBA all stars, our trip was made possible by the overwhelming support of friends, family and small businesses in our community.

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