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Coaches hope Sky will build girls' interest in basketball
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Fans watch the action during Chicago Sky preseason play at the Allstate Arena.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Fans watch the action during Chicago Sky preseason play at the Allstate Arena.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Kate Smith of Winnetka and her 4-year old daughter Allison enjoy a hamburger during the Chicago Sky WNBA debut at the Allstate Arena.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/22/2010 11:52 PM

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For girls who play high school basketball, college players have always been their heroes.

"I dreamed about going to Tennessee," says Ashley Sandstead, a Buffalo Grove High School standout now entering her second year as assistant varsity coach at Stevenson.

When she was in high school, "the WNBA still wasn't very big."

Now, she said, "I think it's great the girls have Sky players" as role models.

The Chicago Sky opened its fifth season Saturday night in its new home, the Allstate Arena, to a crowd of almost 6,500. Team officials say this is a record for the franchise.

Sky CEO Margaret Stender has said she wants suburban basketball fans to become more familiar with women hoisting jump shots and boxing out for rebounds. She said families are the Sky's target niche, stressing how the team caters to young children before and during games.

Longtime Maine West High School coach Derril Kipp said he expects interest in the Sky to grow now that the team is in the suburbs.

"Having it downtown hurt," said Kipp, who has been coaching for 30 years. "Kids or parents would have to drive there and it takes an hour and a half, where now they could get dropped off."

Coaches have two tips for keeping girls interested in the Sky. The first is, keep ticket prices down. The second is more challenging - move the WNBA season away from late spring and early summer.

Coaches say many high school athletes participate in more than one sport, and the girls are usually smack in the middle of soccer or softball seasons when the Sky are playing.

"It's hard enough to collect the uniforms at the end of the year," Hersey High School coach Mary Fendley said.

Because of the timing, many coaches - like Bartlett High School's coach Denise Sarna - take their teams to women's college games instead of WNBA games. Sarna's past teams have seen Northwestern, DePaul and Notre Dame women's teams play.

Also, college is where most high school girls see their role models, such as former high school stars like Lindsay Schrader, who graduated from Bartlett in 2005 and played for Notre Dame.

"Lindsay comes back (to Bartlett) for summer camps so my varsity players know who she is," Sarna said. "Plus, she's a good person, which makes her a good role model."

Not that high school girls can have too many role models. It would be nice if they saw themselves in professional basketball players as well, Sarna said.

"The thing with the Sky is that their prices are a little on the high side and the timing of the season isn't the best," she said. "No one really wants to sit down and watch a basketball game in the summer."

But when it comes to being basketball stars, women's teams have one more hurdle to overcome, Kipp added.

"It will always be the guys," he said. "Everyone knows Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade because they're on TV all the time. The girls need to get on TV."