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T-Birds return to basketball court
Zee Campos didn’t want to play for anyone else, even if that meant waiting a year to give it another shot.
For Campos, this is her last shot. She’s a senior on the Wasson girls’ basketball team. Yes, the Thunderbirds are back.
And back in the W column. On Dec. 1 in Pueblo, Wasson (1-2) ended a 27-game losing streak, knocking off Dolores Huerta Prep 33-20 for the program’s first victory since Feb. 19, 2010.
Last year, Wasson’s season was suspended after on 0-4 start that saw the team outscored 265-29. The girls still played a junior varsity schedule, and the upperclassmen were offered chances to play for other schools.
“I believe in the team,” Campos said. “You can’t determine a new season on the past. I wanted to go and play, but I couldn’t give up on my team. We can only get better, and it’s exciting to wear the uniform again. I’m tired of losing.”
Last spring, Wasson athletic director Jared Welch hired Jerry Austin, a 21-year veteran, to start a new era. Austin, formerly an assistant boys’ coach at Coronado, spent the majority of his time coaching the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams at Harrison.
As an assistant girls’ coach under Butch Thorpe from 1991-98, his teams reached the 4A state finals three years in a row. After three years as head boys' coach at Aurora Central, Austin returned to coach the Harrison boys’ squad, leading the Panthers to the 4A state finals in 2005-06.
Now Austin ventures into his greatest reconstruction project: not only is he expected to coach, he also has the task of recruiting for the future and changing the culture of girls’ basketball at this school with a tenuous future and bleak past, just 9-103 in the past six seasons.
Austin knows a lot about winning. And he knows a lot about losing, too. In all five chances to hold the championship trophy at Harrison, his teams came up short.
“I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum,” Austin said. “I think from that, I’ve learned patience. Wasson is a good fit for me. It’s just going to take some time.”
Austin pounded the pavement at Wasson, trying his best to energize the student body and, most of all, replenish a gutted roster. From making small talk in the hallways between classes, recruiting even during lunch and in classes, Austin received commitments from 16 girls, actually enough to field two teams.
While on a visit to a physical education class, he spotted 6-foot-1 sophomore Joyce Pitts, who hadn’t played competitively in five years. In Saturday’s win, that same Pitts led the T-Birds with 11 points and three blocked shots.
“Coach Austin just talked to me and got me excited about playing basketball again,” Pitts said. “I’m not sure what I’d be doing without basketball, just going to class, I guess. I just want to go out there and win.”
The wins might not come in bunches, if many more at all, but numbers won’t define this year’s T-Birds.
“This is a crash course, for all of us,” Austin said. “For this group, success will be based on what we do in practice, then carrying that over into games. We want to work on minimizing mistakes and progressing. When you work hard and minimize mistakes, then you’re improving.”
Austin can see it already. Last weekend in Pueblo, his team missed 28 free throws in a 45-38 loss to Pueblo Centennial, and then rebounded for a win the next day. The early-season schedule pits Wasson against teams with similar plights, giving the T-Birds a chance to get their legs, and confidence, before the 4A Metro League comes calling early next year.
“We tried to put together a schedule where they can compete and continue to improve as a team,” Welch said. “They were excited to win, and that definitely helps with confidence. I think that pride is there, and we can get a little of that swagger back.”