Friday, July 02, 2010

SPORTS>>Successful Fusion

Leader sportswriter

Now that Dane Grant has the group of players he has been looking for, the trick is going to be keeping them together.

Grant coaches the Arkansas Lady Fusion, a group of 12 girls who spend their summer on the basketball court as part of a 14-under AAU team that competes in elite tournaments across the state.

It is the second season for the team, which had mixed results as it went 20-18 last year. That led Grant to an overhaul, replacing almost half the players.

The move has paid off this year. The Fusion is 35-3 and has won a number of major tournament victories while just over halfway through its schedule.

“That’s far exceeded my expectations, because they’ve only been together for three months,” Grant said. “We’re playing teams that have been together for five and six years. It makes a huge difference with the bonding process.”

The biggest addition is potential NCAA Division I prospect Kori Bullard, a 6-2 post player from Lake Hamilton, who is joined by school teammate Kylie Frazier at guard.

Cabot South’s Ryan Wilson is also a guard for the Lady Fusion, which has five players from Beebe: guards Mackenzie Bingham, Jessica Lane and Sam Kendrick and forwards Jesse Kloss and Kalela Miller.

Other players with local ties include forward Anna Lowery, from Harding Academy, point guard Kyndal Clower, of Vilonia, and Bald Knob forward Taylor Varnell. Jessica McCauley, a small forward from Central Arkansas Christian, completes the roster.

Grant, who has coached successful AAU teams in the past, said his years of service could be winding down. But with the chemistry and success of his current group, he is hoping to hold them together through various teenage distractions and finish out his career with a dominant group of players.

“I’ve got four years left,” Grant said. “My plan is to stay with these girls until they graduate high school. I see a big change in the ninth- and tenth-graders. Usually as eighth- graders, they’re not mobile.

“But once they get those driver’s licenses and they get into other hobbies, it gets harder to get them into practices because they would rather go to the lake or do things, so my plan is to bring this entire group back.”

David Kloss, Jesse Kloss’ father, assists Grant and also sponsors the team through his Kloss Machine Company business in Beebe. Other sponsors include Healthway Drug of Beebe, Ozark Biomedical, Secon Construction, Flur Lansdell and Statewide Pest Control.

The Lady Fusion also supports itself with car washes and bake sales.

“That also brings the kids and the parents together,” Grant said. “Not only do the kids have to get along, but the mommas and daddies have got to co-exist as well.”

Bullard and Frazier, from the Pearcy area, have to make the longest haul to the Lady Fusion’s two-and-a-half hour practices every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But the pair has quickly adapted to Grant’s stringent program.

“We’ve all meshed together,” Bullard said. “And we’re all really, really close and we know where each other play. I think it’s progressing; I think we’ll get even better.”

Jesse Kloss, who alternates between forward and guard, is one of the Fusion’s original players from Beebe. Kloss said the new teammates and improved record this year have made the intense summer practices even more rewarding.

The most difficult aspect of Lady Fusion practices has been finding facilities to use each week.

Practices began in February in the old gymnasium at McRae, which is now a part of the Beebe School District. That was home base for the Lady Fusion until the end of the school year in June.

In the past month, the team has practiced everywhere from First Baptist Church of Beebe to the old ASU-Beebe court, and there was one trying practice in the outdated gym in nearby Garner.

The members of the Lady Fusion are required to make good grades. Grant said that with a system more complex than that of a typical high-school team, sharp, disciplined minds are a benefit.

“It’s fun to win,” Kloss said. “These practices are harder than school practices, so it’s pretty tough, especially at ten in the morning.”

The Lady Fusion has three more in-state tournaments this month, leading up to the MAYB National tournament in Stillwater, Okla., beginning Aug. 5.

Grant said claiming the big prize at nationals will require winning anywhere from 13 to 15 games in a four-day span.

“It’s going to be a very, very tough tournament,” Grant said. “But the good thing about it is two teams from Arkansas have won it the last two years. So, it’s time. This is year number two, and I’m hoping, and I feel very confident, that we can win it.”