By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Haley Elias isn’t the type of player who is going to lead her team in scoring. She won’t lead the team in rebounding, either. Or assists. Or steals. She’ not listed among the league leaders in any statistical category in the Cape-Atlantic League.
But, sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Atlantic County Institute of Technology has a very young girls basketball team. It’s two stars — Tahirah Howard and Kayla Sykes — are both sophomores. They’ve been starting since they were freshmen. Elias took a bit of a different road to the varsity starting lineup, but has matured into the undisputed leader of the team. Part of that is because of the hard work she has put in on the court, and part of it is because she sets an outstanding example off the court.
The senior guard is an aspiring physical therapist who already has been accepted into Stockton University, and she carries a 3.8 grade-point average.
“We’re very proud of her. She’s the only girl on the team who I’ve been her head coach for four years. She’s done things the right way. She’s worked hard for four years. She started out playing a couple of quarters on JV, moved up to the varsity bench, now she’s starting for us. She’s a great kid who has put in the work,” said ACIT coach Jason Vander Ryk. “She’s the type of player I want in my program. She doesn’t take short cuts. She goes out there and puts in the hours outside of practice, maintains great grades, she’s just a phenomenal kid. Her parents should be proud of the kid they raised. She’s not afraid to work hard.”
“I think I’m playing better than I expected. I went to a trainer this summer and that really helped my career; my ball handling is better and my shooting has definitely improved from last year. The rest of the team is still really young, so I just try to show them what the coaching staff expects from them,” Elias said. “It’s crazy how much we’ve improved since my freshman year. The year before I came here the team had two wins, then my freshman year we had 10. This past year, we had 16, so it’s crazy how much we have improved.”
The RedHawks came into the third week of January tied atop the CAL American Conference standings with Millville. Both teams were 3-0 in the conference, with ACIT (7-3) holding a one-game edge overall. A big reason for the team’s success is the determination of Elias. She doesn’t score a ton of points, but plays solid defense every night and can be counted on by Vander Ryk to do whatever is asked of her.
Vander Ryk said Elias put in a lot of extra work this past summer with personal coaches and trainers, and continues to set the standard in the classroom, which is important for the whole team, he said.
“You have to respect that, and sometimes kids don’t get the recognition for doing that. She’s just a hard worker on the court and in the classroom, which is so important,” he said. “She wouldn’t be where she’s at if she just worked during practice and that was it. She’s found other coaches and trainers outside of this program to help her, she’s put the work in, and you have to respect that.”
Elias, a 17-year-old Dorothy resident, said it’s not always easy maintaining a high academic standard while playing basketball. There are late nights and long road trips that can sap a student-athlete’s energy. But, she finds a way to push through, she said.
“When you get home after a game, you just want to go to sleep but you’re like, ‘oh, man, I have to do this homework.’ You have to keep yourself accountable. Our school is mostly technological, a lot of the coursework is on a Chrome Book, so it can be hard to get any work done on bus rides, but if I have other homework that’s on paper I’ll try to do that on the bus. Or, if we have time before we get on the bus, I’ll do it then,” Elias said. “Sometimes you get home late from a game and the next day you’re all worn out and tired, but you know you have to make it through the day. Then you go to practice, get home, do more homework and go right to sleep. I think to myself, ‘as soon as you finish this, you can just go get a shower and go right to sleep.’ I just try to push myself. Sometimes I’m falling asleep while I’m doing my homework, but I just do my best.”
Elias said she tries to help the younger players understand just how important it is to stay on top of their grades, particularly if they hope to continue their basketball careers at the next level.
“School is much more important than basketball. If you don’t do as well in your academics as you do in your sport, colleges are going to see that and maybe they will think twice about signing you,” she said. “School is very important. I know my academics will help my athletic career, too, in maybe being able to play in college. My schooling is a big part of my life. I got accepted to Stockton, so I’m really looking to go there.”
Elias said she has her sights set on becoming a physical therapist.
“I want to become a physical therapist. I got accepted into not exactly the program I wanted to get into, but it will still lead me to physical therapy. I took the SATs twice and the ACT once. I’m taking the ACT again next month, so if I get a better score I may be able to get some more scholarship money and maybe get into the program I really want to get into at Stockton,” Elias said. “I like my EMT class, because it’s very hands on. You’re learning how to save a patient, or splint them. You’re actually out there doing things and not just sitting in a class.”
Elias said she likes to spend time with her family to help deal with the pressures that come along with basketball and keeping up with her grades.
“I love to hang out with my family. We go to my grandparents house every weekend and I get to relax and hang out with my cousins,” she said.
When it comes to keeping such high grades, Elias said she mostly pushes herself to succeed. Although, she admitted that from time to time her mom, Jennifer, will give her a nudge if she starts slacking off.
“(My parents) like to see me do well, but I push myself to do well in school,” Elias said. “I mean, if I start to slack off they will let me know, but I usually push myself more than they do. With math, my mom knows I struggle in that subject, but in English she expects a lot from me.”
Vander Ryk and her teammates also expect a lot from Elias, and throughout her high school career, she has delivered on any and all expectations.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN