Friday, July 27, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Fusion AAU team wins at Conway

Leader sportswriter

On the one hand, the Elite Sports National Championship tournament in Conway was serving as a warmup for the Arkansas Lady Fusion senior division team based in Beebe, but a first-place effort against some of the top teams in the region did more than just get them ready – it gave them a boost of confidence.

Not that confidence was an issue with the team, which has placed first or second in almost every tournament it has participated in over the past two seasons. With the Mid America Youth Basketball Nationals in Oklahoma City, the most prestigious AAU tournament in the country, approaching next weekend, that confidence should be at an all-time high, according to head coach Dane Grant.

The ESNC is considered to be the third biggest tournament in the country, and wins over Arkansas Elite, Havoc, Morrilton and local rival Cabot gave the Lady Fusion their third tournament championship of 2012.

The group comes from all over northeast and central Arkansas, mixed with a few players from the local area.

“I think it’s pretty impressive that these kids will drive two to three hours,” Grant said.

Grant, a teacher at Beebe High School, has a policy of bringing new talent regularly, encouraging the girls to seek out other coaches once they have been under his wing for a brief period. His philosophy is that playing under more coaches gives them a better understanding of the game.

Local players include Beebe’s Whitney Emison, who has served as a team leader for the Lady Fusion this summer. Emison, also a star of the Lady Badgers varsity high-school team, is still on the mend following a knee injury suffered at the Battle at the Brier tournament in Greenbrier last December.

Cabot underclassmen Allie Stalnaker and Ashlyn Johnson are also key components for the Lady Fusion this summer. Johnson, a guard, and Stalnaker, a 5-10 forward, were particularly excited to take on their Lady Panther varsity teammates when they faced Cabot during the Conway tournament.

“Just beating Cabot had such a meaningful effect,” Grant said. “After that, the girls felt like they could win the entire tournament.”

The finals came down to a second showdown against the Arkansas Elite Squad. The championship game went into overtime, and with the Fusion leading 40-38 in the closing seconds, Elite went to the free-throw line with a chance to send the game into a second overtime. The first shot went in to make it a one-point game, but the second shot was off, securing the title for the Lady Fusion.

The Lady Fusion have played over 50 games so far this summer, losing less than 10. Two of those losses came at the recent Meltdown Showcase in Branson, Mo., two weeks ago. It wasn’t the best outing of the season for the Lady Fusion, but individual performances were impressive enough that eight college coaches contacted Grant the following week.

“Everything has just clicked since March,” Grant said. “We’ve taken our lumps, but we’ve beaten the number-one ranked team in the country twice, and we’ve been competitive against the top talent there is to offer.”