The Notre Dame women’s basketball program made big moves to close out the early signing period, nabbing a pair of previously uncommitted top-25 recruits this week.

The Fighting Irish signed Hannah Hidalgo, the No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2023, on Tuesday after picking up Cassandre Prosper, the 12th-ranked player in the Class of 2023, a day earlier.

The early signing period allowed players to sign their National Letter of Intent with schools, beginning on Nov. 9 and running through Wednesday. While many were already committed to their respective schools, making the early signing period a formality, others were still uncommitted.

A five-star point guard, Hidalgo was the program’s biggest signing. During her three years at Paul VI (N.J.), she’s averaged 21.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.4 steals per game. She was also a part of the United States U17 national team that went 7-0 and claimed a gold medal at the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup.

Hidalgo chose the Fighting Irish over the likes of Duke, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford and UCF.

“Hannah brings swag, competitiveness and a relentless drive that will instantly elevate our program,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said in a press release. “She is-multi dimensional, lightning fast and tenacious defensively with a scorer’s mentality and a high basketball IQ. Hannah does a great job of pushing pace and making everyone around her better.”

Prosper is another five-star prospect for Notre Dame. The 6-foot-2 forward was named MVP of the 2022 Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association Final 8 High School Championships last March after posting 33 points, 15 rebounds and two assists in the final game. Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, Prosper was also recognized as the league MVP for Cairine Wilson Secondary School, averaging 23.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game over 10 contests last year.

“She is an explosive, dynamic guard with an incredible motor and skill set that is unmatched,” Ivey said. “Her international experience, athleticism and scorer’s mentality will be an immediate asset to our program.”

Here are two other previously uncommitted top-25 players who signed this week:

Juju Watkins (No. 2), USC

The 6-1 guard signed her NLI on Tuesday in front of a packed gymnasium at Sierra Canyon (Calif.). The signing aired live on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Watkins is the reigning MaxPreps National Player of the Year and was the MVP at the U17 World Cup this summer. She chose USC over Stanford and South Carolina, potentially altering the trajectory of the Trojans’ women’s basketball program in the process.

“This is a young woman with transcendent talent, but she is also uniquely motivated,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said about Watkins in a press release. “She is about things bigger than herself: her family, her team, her community, her city. Juju had the courage to stay home and is driven to bring USC women’s basketball back to prominence.”

Milaysia Fulwiley (No. 15), South Carolina

The 5-6 guard brings a dynamic skill set to the Gamecocks. Fulwiley is the three-time reigning South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association 3A State Player of the Year and has averaged over 20 points in each of her last three seasons. She’s coming off a 2021-22 campaign in which she averaged 29.6 points 8.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 4.6 steals per game for W.J. Keenan (S.C.).

The Columbia, S.C. native received an offer from the Gamecocks when she was in seventh grade. All four of South Carolina’s 2023 signees are ranked inside the top 50.

“She is a dynamic, explosive guard with exceptional speed, court vision and flair,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said about Fulwiley in a press release. “Her scoring mentality and competitive drive will be an immediate asset to our program.”

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

The 2023 Jersey Mike’s Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year watch list was revealed Tuesday, with 38 seniors making an appearance.

Parkway’s Mikaylah Williams, an LSU signee, and Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins, a USC signee, are among the marquee names on the watch list. Sophomores Aaliyah Chavez, Jasmine Davidson and ZaKiyah Johnson are the only underclassmen who made the list.

“This group of young women is as talented as we have ever seen,” said Eric Oberman, executive director of the Atlanta Tipoff Club. “We are excited to watch them compete this season and see their progression and development throughout the 2022-23 season.”

Jadyn Donovan, a Duke signee, will give Sidwell Friends School an opportunity to claim back-to-back honorees after Kiki Rice won the award in 2021-22. UConn and South Carolina each have three recruits on this year’s list.

“Jersey Mike’s believes in the importance of high school sports,” said Jeff Hemschoot, vice president of marketing for Jersey Mike’s. “We are thrilled to be a part of another great year of girls high school basketball and look forward to honoring a deserving athlete at the end of the season.”

The five finalists for this year’s award will be revealed in February, while the trophy will be awarded to the top player in March.

2023 Naismith High School Girls Player of the Year Watch List

Sunaja Agara, Sr., G, Hopkins (Minn.), Stanford
Kamorea Arnold, Sr., PG, Germantown (Wis.), UConn
Carys Baker, Sr., F, Loomis Chaffee (Conn.), Virginia Tech
Sofia Bell, Sr., Wing, Jesuit (Ore.), Oregon
Madison Booker, Sr., W, Germantown (Miss.), Texas
Zoe Brooks, Sr., G, Saint John Vianney (N.J.), NC State
Jaloni Cambridge, Jr., PG, The Ensworth School, Uncommitted
Justice Carlton, Jr., PG, Seven Lakes (Texas), Uncommitted
Aaliyah Chavez, Soph., PG, Monterey (Texas), Uncommitted
Essence Cody, Sr., Post, Valdosta (Ga.), Alabama
Diana Collins, Sr., PG, Brookwood (Ga.), Ohio State
Breya Cunningham, Sr., Post, La Jolla Country Day (Calif.), Arizona
Jasmine Davidson, Soph., Wing, Clackamas (Ore.), Uncommitted
Aalyah Del Rosario, Sr., Post, The Webb School (Tenn.), LSU
Jadyn Donovan, Sr., G, Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.), Duke
Joyce Edwards, Jr., F, Camden (S.C.), Uncommitted
Milaysia Fulwiley, Sr., PG, W.J. Keenan (S.C.), South Carolina
Hannah Hidalgo, Sr., PG, Paul VI (N.J.), Notre Dame
Sahnya Jah, Sr., Wing, Montverde Academy (Fla.), South Carolina
Kymora Johnson, Sr., G, Saint Anne’s-Belfield (Va.), Virginia
Tessa Johnson, Sr., G, Saint Michael Albertville (Minn.), South Carolina
ZaKiyah Johnson, Soph., G, Sacred Heart (Ky.), Uncommitted
Ari Long, Sr., PG, Valley View (Calif.), Washington
Amanda Muse, Sr., Post, Heritage (Calif.), UCLA
Riley Nelson, Sr., Wing, Bullis School (Md.), Maryland
Mackenzie Nelson, Sr., PG, St. Luke’s School (Conn.), Virginia Tech
S’mya Nichols, Sr., Wing, Shawnee Mission West (Kan.), Kansas
Courtney Ogden, Sr., Wing, Westminster School (Ga.), Stanford
Olivia Olson, Jr., PG, Benilde Saint Margaret (Minn.), Michigan
Britt Prince, Jr., PG, Elkhorn North (Neb.), Uncommitted
Cassandre Prosper, Sr., F, Cairine Wilson Secondary School (Quebec, Canada), Notre Dame
Laila Reynolds, Sr., G, Shabach Christian Academy (Md.), Florida
Amiyah Reynolds, Sr., G, Washington (Ind.), Maryland
Emma Risch, Sr., G, Palm Bay Magnet (Fla.), Notre Dame
Qadence Samuels, Sr., F, Bishop McNamara (Md.), UConn
Taliah Scott, Sr., G, Saint John’s Country Day (Fla.), Arkansas
Sayvia Sellers, Sr., PG, Anchorage Christian Schools (Alaska), Washington
Ashlynn Shade, Sr., G, La Lumiere (Ind.), UConn
Sarah Strong, Jr., F, Grace Academy (N.C.), Uncommitted
Adhel Tac, Jr., Post, South Grand Prairie (Texas), Uncommitted
Delaney Thomas, Sr., F, St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.), Duke
Blanca Thomas, Jr., Post, Charlotte Catholic (N.C.), Uncommitted
Ciera Toomey, Sr., Post, Dunmore (Penn.), North Carolina
Letycia Vasconcelos, Sr., Post, Montverde Academy (Fla.), Baylor
Sammie Wagner, Sr., Wing, Ronald Reagan (Texas), Oregon
Juju Watkins, Sr., G, Sierra Canyon (Calif.), USC
Mikaylah Williams, Sr., G, Parkway (La.), LSU
Jada Williams, Sr., PG, La Jolla Country Day (Calif.), Arizona
Sahara Williams, Sr., Wing, West (Iowa), Oklahoma
Allie Ziebell, Jr., G, Neenah (Wis.), Uncommitted

Surrounded by her Sierra Canyon teammates, Juju Watkins was relishing the moment Tuesday afternoon.

The star senior waited until the end of the NCAA early signing period to make her decision, but her teammates erupted in celebration when she announced that she was signing her National Letter of Intent with the University of Southern California in front of a packed crowd at the school’s gymnasium in Los Angeles.

Watkins picked the Trojans over the likes of Stanford and South Carolina, choosing to stay close to home in the end.

“To just be born and raised here and to have a community behind me is amazing,” Watkins told Luca Evans of the Los Angeles Times. “To just continue my L.A. legacy, and I feel like no matter where I would’ve gone, that would’ve still been a part of me, but I just think it hits different when I’m born and raised here and I get to continue my journey.”

The 6-foot-2 guard burst onto the scene for Sierra Canyon in 2021-22, averaging 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per game in her first season with the program. The Trailblazers went on to claim their second straight California Interscholastic Federation Open Division state crown.

She’s currently ranked No. 2 in the latest JWS player rankings for the Class of 2023 and is coming off a summer campaign in which she was named MVP at the FIBA U17 World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary.

Watkins announced her decision live on ESPN and said family was the main reason she decided to go with the Trojans.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October, Amy Jones shuffles some papers around as she joins the scheduled video chat. She apologizes for being a few minutes late, but no apologies are necessary.

There’s a lot going on in Jones’ life these days as she and her family pick up the pieces and do all they can to regain some normalcy. Jones is working from home in her new role as assistant superintendent/curriculum director of Nickerson/South Hutchinson Schools USD 309 in Kansas, a position she accepted in February after serving as the principal at Nickerson Elementary School since 2016.

“Ava is on her way down,” Amy says about her daughter.

Shortly thereafter, Ava slides into the frame, her curly blonde hair draped down her shoulders. She smiles as brief introductions are shared — it’s difficult to find evidence of Ava sporting anything less than her endearing grin.

Life is vastly different than it was several months ago for the mother and daughter. They are both still recovering from a crash that took place in early July over 700 miles away from home in Louisville, Ky., leaving them in a medically induced coma for more than a week.

While Ava and Amy survived the crash — along with Ava’s younger brother, Creek, who sustained minor injuries — the family is now dealing with the unfathomable loss of a father and husband, Trey, who spent three days in critical condition before he passed away at 42 years old.

Ava and Amy know their road to recovery is a long one — Ava is focusing on walking the same way she did before the crash, while Amy is still bound to a wheelchair and a walker — but their optimism is both innate and undeniable.

“I feel good,” Ava says. “I don’t know when I’ll have surgery, but other than that, I feel good.”

“We’re waiting to find out when to schedule her surgery, but it should be within the next two weeks, on her first knee. So we’re ready to get the ball rolling on that,” Amy adds. “I’m still going to have to have a couple surgeries, and I don’t know when they’re planning on doing that.”

Ava had a stellar junior season for Nickerson in 2022, averaging 20.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Three months following the crash, Ava returned to school on a part-time basis in early October, attending classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and therapy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She’s now a senior at Nickerson High School, where she’s made her name as one of the school’s most prolific athletes ever to walk the halls.

The 6-foot-2 standout became an ESPN top-100 girls basketball recruit in the Class of 2023 following a junior campaign in which she averaged 20.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game for the Panthers. She was also a second team all-state selection in Class 3A on the volleyball court, and in 2021, she was a state champion in the high jump as a sophomore.

But basketball was Ava’s first love, and she’s determined to someday get back on the court. For now, the road is long and arduous.

Just two days before the accident that turned her world upside down, Ava committed to join coach Lisa Bluder and the Iowa women’s basketball program, but she struggles to recall committing after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in the crash that affected her frontal lobe. She followed up on that commitment Wednesday when she signed her National Letter of Intent to join the Hawkeyes program.

News of the tragedy has echoed far beyond the small town of Nickerson and Reno County. A Facebook group of updates surrounding the Jones family has nearly 20,000 members, and people have launched multiple fundraisers to help the family in their time of need, including a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $160,000 to date.

In early October, Bluder raised concerns during an Iowa public board meeting that Ava may never play basketball again. MRI scans at the time revealed that the 17-year-old had torn all four major ligaments in both of her knees.

“I can’t believe she was walking,” Bluder told Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics on Oct. 6. “The doctor said, ‘I’ve never seen a person come in here with four torn ligaments in a knee and not be crying.’”

Wednesday’s signing is proof that Iowa remains committed to honoring Ava’s scholarship, regardless of whether or not she’s able to play basketball again, but Ava is insistent on lacing up her shoes and returning to the court one day.

Driven by the toughness instilled in her by her late father, Ava refuses to give up on her dream.

“Where I’m at right now, I can see myself in the future getting better, getting back to it and working out again,” Ava says. “I’m excited for that, to get back to it.”

Ava is driven by the toughness instilled in her by her late father, and she refuses to give up on her dream. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘Ava was obviously the main cog’

Ava first began playing basketball around second or third grade in a rec league when the family lived in Winfield, Kan.

Basketball has always been a tradition in the Jones family. Trey was a star on the court at Nickerson in the late ‘90s, and Amy played the sport herself. Their oldest son, Hunter, also lettered in basketball at Nickerson, so naturally, Ava also grew up admiring the sport.

Jon McLean recalls first meeting Ava when she and his daughter, Josie, were on a travel team together in sixth grade. In seventh grade, Ava and Josie began attending Reno Valley Middle School, which fed into Nickerson High School, and Jon was named assistant principal, athletic director and head girls basketball coach at Nickerson.

“They started playing volleyball together and basketball together and ran track in junior high,” says McLean, who took over as athletic director at nearby Hutchinson High School in July. “So, I’ve known Ava ever since she was in sixth grade.”

By the time the Jones family had moved from Winfield and settled in Nickerson, Ava was in eighth grade when she began playing with Wheat State Elite on the AAU circuit.

It wasn’t until Ava’s freshman year that she and her coaches started to realize there might be a future for her on the basketball court beyond high school.

“She was always tall, and she loved basketball. So you knew that she was probably going to be pretty good, but she was pretty raw,” McLean says. “It wasn’t until the summer of her freshman to sophomore year that I really saw her improvements.”

With each year that passed, Ava progressed more and more on the court, playing in 40-plus games a season during the summer with Wheat State Elite while also putting in time outside of practice to train throughout the year.

During his five seasons at Nickerson, McLean led the Panthers to the state tournament four times, including three appearances in the final four. Ava garnered first team all-state honors as a sophomore and repeated that feat as a junior when Nickerson finished fourth in Class 3A.

Led by seniors Kieryn Ontjes and Alexis Allen, the Panthers’ 2021-22 squad was well-rounded, but Ava was the key to their success, averaging a double-double on the season while receiving most of the attention from opposing teams.

“Ava was obviously the main cog,” McLean says. “She was just really good, just very skilled.”

McLean played Ava primarily in the post due to her height advantage, but on the summer circuit, she played more on the perimeter, allowing her to develop skills in the backcourt.

“A lot of people don’t realize, she was just an extremely hard worker,” McLean says. “That’s why she averaged 15 rebounds per game — she just had a nose for the ball. She did not stand still. She was always around the basket, rebounding the ball. She’s just very active on defense, hard to score on.”

Ava took first place in the high jump in 2021 and second place in 2022. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Away from the court, Ava proved her athleticism year-round at Nickerson. She lettered in volleyball three years and was a second team all-state selection in 2021. Then, in the spring, Ava was a three-time state medalist on Nickerson’s track and field team, which was coached by her father. She took first place in the high jump in 2021 and second place in 2022. She also placed third at state in the pole vault as a junior and seventh in the javelin throw.

Both Trey and Amy were state champions in the high jump in high school, as was Hunter, who now competes at Pittsburg State and is a two-time All-American in the heptathlon.

For Ava, the recruiting process was busy throughout. She initially committed to Arizona State, but after coach Charli Turner Thorne announced her retirement in early March, Ava opted to re-open her recruitment.

After hearing of Ava’s de-commitment, Bluder was all in to pursue Ava’s talents. In April, the 23-year Iowa coach sent assistant coach Abby Stamp down to Texas, where Ava was playing in an AAU tournament, and Stamp was impressed.

“Oh yeah, she’s the real deal,” Stamp told Bluder. “She is a player.”

Ava’s prowess on the boards was the first thing that stood out to Bluder, who was fascinated by her vertical abilities.

“She also pole vaulted, which I thought was so cool,” Bluder says. “I never really met a female pole vaulter until I met Ava, so that was kind of fun.”

Ava was the perfect fit for the Hawkeyes’ up-tempo offense. They projected her as a power forward and were impressed with her ability to beat defenders off the dribble and shoot from behind the arc.

“I was talking to a player after the accident about her, someone we were recruiting, and she goes, ‘Oh man, I remember her. We were playing in Des Moines, and somebody on my team had a breakaway layup. Ava came from behind her and pinned the ball on the backboard,’” Bluder says. “That just expresses how athletic she was, and we hope that she’ll get that back someday.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder began recruiting Ava in April. (James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Whether it was on Zoom or over the phone, Bluder and the Iowa staff were staying in contact with Ava as much as they could until track season concluded. Then, in June, Ava made her first official visit to Iowa City, along with Trey and Amy.

“It’s funny how with some kids, you just have this instant connection,” Bluder says. “You’re like, ‘I want to coach this kid.’ Your personalities just gel or something, and I think she felt the same way about us.

“I know that she went on another visit to Oregon State after us, but I think she already had her mind made up at that point.”

Other schools showed interest — including Colorado, Kansas, Tulsa, Drake, Texas Tech and Oregon State — but Ava had found the perfect fit.

Enthralled by Bluder, Stamp and associate head coach Jan Jensen, Ava waited until July 3 — a subtle shoutout to her father, Trey — and contacted Bluder at 11 a.m. via Zoom to give her verbal commitment.

“Coaches are different everywhere, and so it’s a lot when you’re trying to understand them more. That’s why I chose Iowa,” Ava says.

‘It was all just hard to process’

On July 5, just two days after Ava announced her commitment, she and her family were getting ready for the Run 4 Roses Classic, an AAU tournament at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

The family spent the day touring downtown, including a stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where Creek took part in some batting practice. They returned to their hotel at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, where Amy and Trey got drinks for happy hour.

That’s the last thing Amy remembers from that day.

“We were going to go eat dinner, I guess,” she says. “I don’t remember leaving the hotel.”

A little after 8 p.m. that evening, police said video from a street camera showed 33-year-old Michael Hurley driving down West Market Street and running a red light at 3rd Street. From there, Hurley’s car drifted from the third lane through the intersection before jumping the curb and hitting the family of four at the intersection of South 2nd Street and Market.

Hurley allegedly told police responding to the scene that he had just taken Hydrocodone and was “so tired he could not make the turn.”

Ava, Amy and Trey were taken to University of Louisville Hospital in critical condition. Ava suffered a broken back and underwent several surgeries to relieve a brain bleed, while Amy sustained severe traumatic brain injuries and underwent multiple surgeries on her leg. Trey died at the hospital days later on July 8.

Creek, 10, was treated for minor injuries and released from the hospital, and Hunter, who wasn’t with the family at the time of the accident, traveled to Louisville to be with them.

At a pretrial hearing on July 14, police said the video evidence from the street camera showed Hurley drove for about 30 yards before coming to a stop, and he didn’t get out of the car immediately to check on the victims. In fact, he barely made an effort to help.

Trey’s mother, Mary Alice Jones, was also in the courtroom for the pretrial hearing.

“No family should ever have to go through this, and this man should not be allowed to ever do it to another family,” she told a Louisville news reporter. “I hate that it happened to us, but if we can keep any other family from having to go through this, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

On Aug. 31, Hurley was indicted by a grand jury and charged with one count of murder, two counts of first-degree aggravated assault, one count of fourth-degree aggravated assault and operating a vehicle while under the influence. He was formally arraigned on Sept. 6. A new pretrial hearing has been set for Dec. 14.

A little more than a week after the crash, Amy regained consciousness, and Ava had already been transported to the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in Louisville.

“It was all just hard to process,” Amy says.

For Ava, the rehab process began with physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“For me, it was just being able to move my legs when I wanted them to move and being able to remember stuff,” Ava says. “That’s what we worked on in speech [therapy]. My voice is still gone, but it’s not as strong as it used to be. Speech was the main part of therapy.”

Amy eventually underwent the same therapy for a couple of weeks before an infection in her leg sent her back to UofL.

But after more than a month of therapy, on Aug. 18, the Jones family returned to their home in Nickerson, where they began to reconstruct their lives and grieve.

Back home, the news quickly spread throughout the Reno County community. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘Devastation and shock’

Back home, news of the Jones family’s condition quickly spread throughout the Reno County community.

Sifting through what was true and what wasn’t, McLean describes a feeling of helplessness as he and others tried to make sense of the situation.

“It was just complete shock as to what took place,” he says. “In a small community, word of mouth just starts to spread so quickly. Within Reno County, you’ve got Hutchinson High School, you’ve got Nickerson, and you’ve got everybody that’s just at a loss of words and terribly sad.”

On July 10, two days after Trey’s passing, people throughout the community came together at Nickerson High School for a candlelight vigil on the school’s brand-new track. Those who were there held candles and sang “Amazing Grace” as children and adults wrote prayers and wishes for the family. The crowd was invited to write their thoughts on paper and throw them into one of two fires as an appeal to “whatever you believe in.”

Nickerson’s new track was completed this year and was developed, in large part, thanks to Trey’s oversight. On April 6, the Panthers will host their first meet on the new track.

“He had a vision, so he worked with the contractors to carry out that vision,” Amy says. “And he didn’t even get to use it.”

The community came together July 10 at Nickerson High School for a candlelight vigil on the school’s brand-new track, built with Trey's oversight. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

McLean says the family’s resilience in the aftermath of all that has happened is simply a testament to their fortitude.

“That’s just kind of who they are, too. They’re just tough,” he says. “They’re just good, hard-working people. It’s hard to describe. They’ve got a resilience to them. They’ll make the best of any situation. They’re going to do the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. Even though it’s been a horrible hand, they’ll wake up every morning and go to work and just be the best they can be.

“That’s what their father, Trey, would want.”

Beyond that, the news spread far and wide. Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark was one of many who sent out a tweet asking for prayers for the family just two days after the accident, while a GoFundMe account was set up to help aid the family, a fundraiser that’s received more than 2,000 individual donations to date.

“We’d been building that relationship since early April, but our fan base only knew about her for 48 hours. And here they are sending prayers but also financially giving quite a bit to the GoFundMe page,” Bluder says. “I had one booster that reached out and wanted to give them Marriott points so that the extended family could stay down there without having the financial burden of being there.

“It just shows you how special being an Iowa Hawkeye is and how much this community loves our women’s basketball players.”

Countless fundraisers were promoted in a “Jones Family Updates” Facebook group, where those who caught wind of the story were able to track the progress of the family and provide their support.

“It’s meant a lot,” Amy says. “It’s hard to believe that so many people are involved with us and have donated and have helped out and are there and have sent prayers and thoughts.

“I wouldn’t have ever imagined. It’s been so comforting.”

Nickerson students wore specially made shirts to honor track coach Trey Jones during a candlelight vigil. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

On Sept. 17, nearly a month after returning home from Louisville, the Jones family held a memorial service to honor Trey’s life. People from all walks of life were on hand to share stories of a man who left a lasting impact on his community.

Trey was heavily involved in the lives of his children through sports and was a friend to many, often spending his free time hunting and fishing with friends. He was an industrial arts teacher at Nickerson, so whether he was constructing a fence or building a table, he’d regularly be found using his skills to help others as well.

“I can just remember standing out in the hallways with him every morning, greeting kids with him and talking with him,” McLean says. “He’d come in my office — I was athletic director — and we’d just talk sports. I’d go to track meets and watch him interact with the kids and how he coached them. He was just a good man, a good father, a good teacher, a good coach.”

“He pushed me really hard in track and in playing sports,” Ava adds. “He supported me in going to training and lifting weights. He didn’t force me to do anything, but I wanted to be better. Obviously, that’s who he was. That’s how I was, too.”

Ava was a three-time state medalist on Nickerson’s track and field team, coached by her father. (Billy Watson/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘It’s really unspeakable what they’ve had to go through’

The road to recovery for Ava and Amy figures to be a long one, but they’re anxious and eager to take their next steps.

While Ava continues working on her reading and memory, she also focuses on breathing and getting her voice back.

They’re unsure whether the damage to her throat was from the crash or from Ava pulling her trachea tube out twice in the hospital while she was unconscious. She also pulled out her catheter twice and her feeding tube at least once.

As far as physical recovery, Ava is trying to regain her strength before she undergoes surgery, after which she’ll likely have to repeat that same process while she recovers. She’s regularly in the weight room and focuses primarily on calf raises and abdominal workouts.

Regaining strength and mobility in her legs will require some time. While she can walk, she isn’t able to walk with the same steadiness she had before the crash.

Once a neurologist clears her to be able to handle the anesthesia, she’ll undergo separate surgeries on her knees and then a surgery on her shoulder. They’re hoping to get it done within the coming weeks.

The road to recovery for Ava and Amy figures to be a long one, but they’re eager to take the next steps. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

As for Amy, the road to recovery is equally as uncertain. She’s still unable to walk on her own and will require a major surgery on her leg — a bone graft on her tibia that’s yet to fully heal. Doctors also plan to remove the metal rod in her leg that is festering bacteria, and she expects a six-month recovery period. Following that, she’ll undergo surgery on the ACL and LCL in her other leg before working on her damaged arm, allowing her to touch her head again.

“For Ava and Amy, what they have had to endure physically, and to put on top of that, the mental anguish,” Bluder says, “it’s really unspeakable what they’ve had to go through.”

Ava has tried to turn her own experience with tragedy into an opportunity to help others, as she wants to be a resource to other kids who have lost a parent.

“Not very many people have gone through this, losing a parent,” Ava says. “Not very many kids go through that, so I just want little kids and kids younger than me to feel like they can talk to me. Even kids that are older, they can talk to me.”

Ava understands the challenge that lies ahead of her, but she’s fueled by her dream of playing at the next level and driven by the purpose of fulfilling the dream her father had for her.

“If she can’t play for the first year, then she’s going to be on the sidelines and learning from the sidelines, helping us out and learning our system and our culture and what that’s like,” Bluder says. “I just think the minute she walks out on the floor — and I don’t know when that’ll be — but the minute she does, I don’t think there’ll be a dry eye in Carver Hawkeye Arena.”

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

A little more than five months removed from an accident that changed everything, Ava Jones made it official Wednesday when she signed her National Letter of Intent to continue her playing career at the University of Iowa.

A 6-foot-2 forward from Nickerson, Kan., Jones averaged 20.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game last season for the Panthers. She committed to the Hawkeyes on July 3, and two days later, she and her family were walking along a sidewalk in downtown Louisville when a driver hit the family of four.

Ava and her mother, Amy, were in a medically induced coma for more than a week, while her father, Trey, passed away three days later. He was 42. Ava’s younger brother, Creek, was also involved in the accident but escaped with minor injuries.

The driver, Michael Hurley, told police at the scene of the accident that he had just taken Hydrocodone and was “so tired he could not make the turn.” He was indicted by a grand jury on Aug. 31 and charged with one count of murder, two counts of first-degree aggravated assault, one count of fourth-degree aggravated assault and operating a vehicle while under the influence.

Ava and Amy returned to their home in Kansas on Aug. 18, and on Sept. 17, the family held a memorial service to honor Trey’s life. During an Iowa public board meeting in early October, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder raised concerns that Ava may never play basketball again after MRI scans revealed that the 17-year-old had torn all four major ligaments in both of her knees.

“I can’t believe she was walking,” Bluder told Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics on Oct. 6. “The doctor said, ‘I’ve never seen a person come in here with four torn ligaments in a knee and not be crying.’”

Ava is currently ranked as the No. 84 player in ESPN’s Class of 2023 women’s basketball recruiting rankings. She’s the reigning Class 3A girls basketball player of the year in Kansas and was MVP of the Central Kansas League.

“We are signing her because we believe in her and she believes in us,” Bluder said in a press release. “She is a remarkable athlete with great versatility. She is working hard to return to the athlete she was.

“When she takes the floor for Iowa, it will be a special moment for all of us.”

It was the match the Hamilton Southeastern (Ind.) volleyball team waited all season to play, and the Royals made the most of it.

After dropping the first set, Hamilton Southeastern battled back to win 3-1 (16-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-19) over McCutcheon in a Class 4A regional final Saturday, sending the Royals to the semi-state round and extending their winning streak to 32 matches.

The win avenged Hamilton Southeastern’s season-opening 3-1 loss to the Mavericks on Aug. 13. It also guaranteed the end of McCutcheon’s reign as 4A state champion.

In Saturday’s match, Hamilton Southeastern matched a season-high in kills with 59. Duquesne University commit Avery Hobson led the way for the Royals, finishing with 14 kills and 16 digs. Lauren Harden added 11 kills and six blocks, while Breonna Goss chipped in 10 kills and six blocks. Sophie Ledbetter paced Hamilton Southeastern’s defense with 23 digs, and Macy Hinshaw contributed 24 assists and 11 digs. Tiffany Snook finished with seven blocks.

Purdue commit Chloe Chicoine, the No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2023, had a match-high 31 kills for McCutcheon, but it wasn’t enough to stymie the Royals, who used their size to their advantage and were dominant defensively.

The win over the Mavericks, who were previously ranked No. 3, vaults Hamilton Southeastern seven spots to No. 5 in this week’s Just Women’s Sports volleyball team rankings. The Royals will continue their quest for the 4A state title with a semi-state showdown against Lake Central on Saturday.

Check out the complete rankings below, and click here to view last week’s rankings.

1. Cathedral Catholic (Calif.), 35-0

Another victory brings another sweep for the Dons, who have yet to drop a set this season. They conclude the regular season Thursday against Del Norte.

2. Cornerstone Christian (Texas), 55-2

Nayeli Gonzalez (573 kills) and Megan Fitch (495 kills) lead the Warriors’ high-powered offense, while Alex Manitzas has a team-leading 436 digs to pace the defense.

3. Mira Costa (Calif.), 35-3

The Mustangs had a .385 hitting percentage as a team in a sweep of Palos Verdes on Tuesday. They’ll conclude pool play in the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division I Championships on Saturday against Mater Dei.

4. Westminster Christian (Fla.), 24-0

The Warriors defeated NSU University in straight sets Tuesday to advance to the Class 3A region semifinals. They’ll take on Riviera Prep on Friday, with a spot in the region final on the line.

5. Hamilton Southeastern (Ind.), 32-1

Until Saturday’s win over McCutcheon, the Royals hadn’t dropped a single set in more than a month of action.

6. Washburn Rural (Kan.), 40-1

The Blues eased past Dodge City and Manhattan on Saturday to claim a sub-state crown and will now turn their attention to the Class 6A state tournament, which begins with pool play on Friday.

7. Prestonwood Christian (Texas), 35-1

The Lions’ win over Ursuline Academy on Tuesday extends their winning streak to 23 matches. They wrap up their regular season Thursday against Liberty Christian.

8. Bloomfield Hills Marian (Mich.), 42-1

The Mustangs claimed the Catholic High School League Bishop Division tournament championship with ease, defeating Mercy 3-0 on Tuesday to clinch the title. They went 6-0 on Saturday, winning 12 straight sets to earn a spot in the final.

9. Highland Park (Texas), 39-2

Winners of 17 straight, the Scots wrapped up their regular season with a win over MacArthur on Tuesday. Led by 10 seniors, Highland Park will now turn its attention to the postseason.

10. Fayetteville (Ark.), 34-2

Stanford commit Brooke Rockwell finished the regular season with a team-leading 464 kills for the Bulldogs, who opened the Class 6A tournament Wednesday with a 3-0 win over Bentonville West. They’ll square off against Cabot on Thursday in the state semifinals.

11. Tompkins (Texas), 36-3

The Falcons knocked off Paetow in straight sets Tuesday to conclude the regular season. Cindy Tchouangwa has 487 kills to lead Tompkins, which has won 16 in a row entering the playoffs.

12. McCutcheon (Ind.), 33-2

Chicoine had 549 kills to wrap up her final varsity season, after the Mavericks were stunned by Hamilton Southeastern in a Class 4A regional final on Saturday.

13. Oconomowoc (Wis.), 35-1

The Raccoons opened the playoffs with a win over Neenah on Saturday and will take on Watertown on Thursday in a Division 1 sectional final. They’re led by Florida Tech commit Cordelia Kearns, who has 363 kills.

14. Marymount (Calif.), 30-7

The Sailors fell to Newport Harbor 3-2 in pool play of the CIF Southern Section Division I Championships on Tuesday but will try to stay alive when they face Sierra Canyon on Saturday.

15. Cypress Ranch (Texas), 41-2

The Mustangs have won 25 straight and will wrap up their regular season Friday at Fulshear. Texas A&M commit Bianna Muoneke leads Cypress Ranch with 742 kills on the season.

16. Sierra Canyon (Calif.), 31-4

The Trailblazers are 2-0 in pool play of the CIF Southern Section Division I Championships after knocking off Huntington Beach in straight sets on Tuesday. Now, they’ll wrap up pool play and try to avenge a loss from earlier this month when they take on Marymount on Saturday.

17. St. Thomas Aquinas (Kan.), 35-3

The Saints claimed a sub-state title on Saturday and will now head to the Class 5A state tournament, which begins with pool play on Friday.

18. Yorktown (Ind.), 33-2

The Tigers avenged an early-season loss when they knocked off Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory 3-1 on Saturday. They followed that up by defeating Brownsburg in straight sets to claim the regional crown. Yorktown continues its quest for a Class 4A title when it takes on Floyd Central on Saturday in the semi-state round.

19. Mother McAuley (Ill.), 33-3

The Mighty Macs ended their regular season with a straight-set win over Argo on Tuesday. The sectional round awaits, as Mother McAuley begins postseason play Thursday against Lane Tech.

20. ‘Iolani (Hawaii), 23-5

The Raiders won their 10th in a row after sweeping Kapolei on Wednesday. The win advances them to the Division I semifinal round, where they’ll take on Mililani on Thursday.

21. Dike-New Hartford (Iowa), 43-2

The Wolverines claimed the Class 2A Region 4 title with a 3-0 win over Grand View Christian on Wednesday. Payton Petersen has 430 kills to lead Dike-New Hartford, which continues its quest for a third straight state championship Tuesday in a state quarterfinal match against Kuemper Catholic.

22. Buford (Ga.), 36-5

The Wolves downed East Coweta in straight sets Tuesday in the state quarterfinals, extending their winning streak to 16 matches. The win moves Buford into the final four in Class 7A, with a matchup against North Gwinnett slated for Saturday.

23. Mater Dei (Calif.), 29-7

Straight-set wins over Palos Verdes and Lakewood send the Monarchs into a crucial battle of pool-play unbeatens in the CIF Southern Section Division I Championships. On Saturday, they’ll face Mira Costa, with whom they split a pair of matches earlier this season.

24. Saint Francis (Calif.), 28-0

The Lancers remain unbeaten after knocking off Archbishop Mitty in a 3-2 decision Tuesday. They begin action in the CIF Central Coast Section tournament this weekend.

25. St. James Academy (Kan.), 34-3

The Thunder swept Leavenworth and Spring Hill to claim a sub-state title in Class 5A. They begin pool play at the state tournament on Friday.

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

Ahead of her FIFA U-17 World Cup debut last week, Charlotte Kohler said she couldn’t wait to see her father, Will, after the match.

On Monday, Will was beaming.

With her father looking on during Monday’s match, Charlotte scored a brace to lead the United States to a 4-0 win over Morocco at Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa, India, bringing her tournament total to a team-leading three goals as the Americans captured first place in Group A. Sam Smith also had a brace for the U.S. in her first U-17 cap.

The 2022 World Cup offers a unique generational story between Charlotte and Will. Thirty-one years ago, Will was a star midfielder on the U.S. U-17 men’s national team at the 1991 U-17 World Championship.

Now, Charlotte is carrying the torch.

“His experience was a little bit different because I had already played in Concacaf, whereas his was more of like a first-time thing going to the World Cup, which would be very intimidating, so our experiences were kind of different,” Charlotte said in an interview prior to the start of group play. “But we both shared the same gratitude toward the opportunity.

“He played a huge role in both me and my siblings. He’s just a great supporter. He comes to all my games, drives us all the long distances.”

Will went on to be a four-year letterwinner for the Harvard men’s soccer team and was a captain his senior year. Following his college career, he was selected fifteenth overall in the second round by the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the 1997 MLS College Draft.

“We both are small, quick midfielders,” Charlotte said. “Everyone always says I’m scrappy, which is how he played, too, so I guess that’s similar.”

Will was all smiles while watching his daughter from the stands on Monday.

In the 24th minute, Charlotte got the scoring started on an assist from Melina Rebimbas to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead that held until halftime. Smith made her first appearance for the U.S. in the second half and found the back of the net in the 68th minute before Charlotte followed it up shortly thereafter with another goal in the 73rd minute. Smith capped the scoring in the 81st minute on a cross from Amalia Villarreal.

The win gives the U.S. the top spot in Group A after finishing with a plus-12 goal differential over second-place Brazil (plus-6). The two teams played to a 1-1 draw on Friday and finished atop the Group A table with seven points apiece. The U.S. will now turn its attention to a quarterfinal matchup with Nigeria on Friday, while Brazil takes on Group B winner Germany.

For the U.S., the victory clinched the its first return to the knockout stage since the inaugural tournament in 2008 when it finished runner-up to Korea DPR in New Zealand. It’s also the first time the U.S. has won its group.

Charlotte’s three goals are followed closely behind by Rebimbas, who has two goals. The U.S. opened the tournament with an 8-0 win over India, during which Gisele Thompson, whose sister Alyssa earned her first cap with the USWNT in a 2-1 friendly loss to England on Oct. 7, scored for the Americans.

The U.S. is captained by midfielder Riley Jackson, the reigning Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year.

The seventh edition of the U-17 World Cup was initially scheduled for 2020 but was then postponed due to COVID-19. The tournament features 16 teams from around the globe.

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

On Wednesday, Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder received a phone call that upended her world.

Iowa commit Ava Jones, who survived a car crash in July in Louisville, had an MRI scan that revealed more about the seriousness of her injuries, leaving the future of her playing career in serious jeopardy, according to a report from The Gazette.

“I doubt she will ever play basketball again,” Bluder told the newspaper.

The MRI scans revealed that Jones had torn all four major ligaments in both of her knees.

“I can’t believe she was walking,” Bluder told Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics on Thursday. “The doctor said, ‘I’ve never seen a person come in here with four torn ligaments in a knee and not be crying.’”

On July 5, an impaired driver drove onto the sidewalk in downtown Louisville and hit Jones and her family, leaving Ava and both of her parents in critical condition at the UofL Hospital. Her father, Trey, passed away several days following the accident, while her mother, Amy, also suffered serious injuries.

In August, Ava and Amy returned to their home in Kansas to rehabilitate at an outpatient facility in Wichita. Then, in September, the family, along with friends and loved ones, held a memorial service to honor the life of Trey. He was 42 years old.

The family was hit by driver Michael Hurley, 33, who was high on hydrocodone. Hurley was charged with one count of murder, two counts of first-degree aggravated assault, one count of fourth-degree aggravated assault and operating a vehicle while under the influence.

According to Bluder, doctors still are “really working on her brain improvement.”

The Hawkeyes program already has committed to honoring Ava’s scholarship, regardless of whether or not she’s able to step back onto the court again.

“She’s still somebody that we are going to have as a part of our program because we believe in her,” Bluder told The Gazette. “She committed to us, and just because she had something bad happen to her doesn’t mean that we turn our back on her. We’ll be there for her and her family as much as we can.”

A GoFundMe page has raised more than $157,000 for the family, with many of the donations coming from Iowa’s loyal fanbase.

“The Hawkeye nation has been amazing helping that family,” Bluder said. “So it’s very appreciated.”

Jones, who starred at Nickerson High School and led the program to its third final four appearance in five years, had initially committed to Arizona State, but following the retirement of coach Charli Turner Thorne, she reopened her recruitment. She later announced her commitment to Iowa. She is listed as the 83rd recruit in the Class of 2023 by ESPN.

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

Ask anyone who knows her best — Jaden Polovina is exceptional.

A 5-foot-9 star setter at Crowley High School (Texas), Polovina has been the heart and soul for an Eagles volleyball team that’s off to a 19-11 start in 2022, amassing a team-leading 844 assists along the way. She’s one of two seniors for Crowley and has been a captain the last two seasons, a credit to the tireless work ethic she brings to everything she does.

But perhaps what makes Jaden most unique are the very hands she uses to set the ball.

Polovina was born with deformities in her hands. She has nine fingers. Her two pointer fingers are bent, neither of her thumbs have joints and her left hand has a middle finger and a ring finger that are conjoined into one.

At a young age, Polovina quickly learned to adapt and was rather oblivious to the fact that her hands were different from everyone else’s.

“I just thought, ‘I’m me,’ and I dealt with it in my own way,” she said. “I’ve never known what it’s like to have 10 fingers, so everything I did, I was just kind of learning like a regular child. With my fingers, it didn’t really bother me much. I just never really paid attention to them.

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal because I’ve never known any other way on how to deal with my fingers.”

Polovina was about 7 years old when she first began playing volleyball. Her parents wanted her to be involved in a sport of some sort, so after gauging her interest in softball, soccer, basketball and dance, Polovina began playing volleyball on a YMCA team.

“We were called the Rainbow Ballers, it was the cutest thing ever,” Polovina said. “I was a [defensive specialist] on that team. When you’re 7, you don’t really have a position, but I was a DS.”

Polovina is one of two seniors for Crowley and has been a captain the last two seasons. (Marshall Gardner/Cowtown Images)

By the age of 13, Polovina had been exposed to volleyball only through her YMCA and school teams. One day, a suggestion by her coaches to join a club program piqued her interest. Polovina and her parents were unfamiliar with the club scene, but they found DFW Elite and decided to have her try out. She was in tears when she discovered she’d made the top team as a defensive specialist.

“On the team, we had one setter, and they were like, ‘We need a backup setter,’” Polovina said. “They picked me because I had the second-best hands.

“I was cool with it. I mean, I’ll play whatever position they need me to. That year, I played backup setter. The next year, I played starting setter, and I just kind of kept setting because people needed me to. And then I started to actually love it.”

Polovina was a freshman when she first met Crowley head coach Catherine Bruder. In search of setters for the team, Bruder asked if anybody could set. Polovina raised her hand.

It wasn’t until the Eagles were a little way into the season that Bruder first realized Polovina’s hands were different, when an assistant coach made a comment that they couldn’t understand how she set so well with her hands the way they were.

“We go to games. We do everything, and then after games, referees and coaches are like, ‘Your setter is phenomenal.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, she only has nine fingers,’” Bruder said. “They’re like, ‘What?’ Nobody notices because she’s just so talented. You never notice that there was ever an issue for her.”

Setting certainly required some adjustments on Polovina’s part during her younger years. She had to learn to avoid being called for a double hit because certain fingers would often get in the way. Her super digit, the big finger on her left hand, would sometimes fall into the palm of her hand, or another finger would simply slip because of how it bent.

But over time, she managed to learn her way around the ball.

“I kept doing wall work with the ball — what they call it is wall-balling — and I kept setting,” Polovina said. “I just found a natural feel around the ball with my fingers, and now it’s very rare that I double.

“Something I do now that I didn’t notice, my club coach pointed out, is I’ll drop one of my pinkie fingers on my right hand so that I have four fingers on both hands, so I basically set with eight fingers just to even it out.”

Of course, Polovina has heard it all from those who’d rather tear her down than build her up. Growing up, bullies would call her “alien fingers” or make rude comments about the appearance of her hands, but it never seemed to affect her.

“I can appreciate how nice she is and how kind she is to people and how accepting she is to people, even when I know that people may have not always been that way to her in her earlier life,” Bruder said.

Most people don’t even notice. In fact, some of her teammates — people she’d been playing alongside for more than three years — just found out this year that her right hand was also deformed.

“People don’t tend to notice, but when they do, they’ll usually just ask questions or they won’t say anything,” Polovina said. “If you ask questions and it comes off disrespectful, I’m not really bothered by it. I’m not really bothered by my hands in general. I don’t know why, but I’m just confident in my hands.”

While most of her teammates, coaches and friends have been supportive, Polovina recalls one instance along the way when a trusted adult told her she wouldn’t play in college as a setter and should instead go as a right-side hitter. It didn’t make her sad but instead fueled her desire to prove them wrong.

And she did.

In July, Polovina committed to continue her playing career at the NAIA level with McPherson College in Kansas. During the recruiting phase, she was contacted by head coach Cory Cahill, who invited her to come for a visit and observed as she practiced setting and hitting. When Polovina was done that day, Cahill pulled her aside and offered her a scholarship.

Polovina was impressed with the entire McPherson coaching staff and the positivity with which they coached. She also likes that the campus is not too far from Crowley — about a six-hour drive — and that she’ll be able to have some independence.

“I’ve heard that being on big campuses, people start feeling alone because there’s so many people, so I’m choosing the smaller campus life,” said Polovina, who plans to pursue a business degree. “Overall, I have a great coach. I’m going to have a great team.

“Also, the freakin’ McPherson uniforms are so cute.”

For now, though, Polovina is focused on finishing her high school career on a high note, with hopes of getting to the postseason to give her coach the send-off she deserves.

In May 2021, Bruder was diagnosed with cancer. Not wanting to cause her players unwanted stress, she waited before letting them know at the end of the school year. That way, she figured, they had the summer to process it.

Earlier this season, Crowley squared off against Burleson, a rival school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it was the first time an opposing team had shown support for Bruder. There were “Battle For Bruder” shirts that were made, and people brought flowers to lend their support.

Burleson won 3-2 in what Polovina says was “a very emotional game.”

“We were so close,” Polovina said. “I was so distraught after that game because we all wanted to win for her. Everyone was bawling in the locker room beforehand. We were so driven.

“We’re pretty much playing this season for her. It’s all about Bruder, nothing else.”

Polovina and her teammates wear shirts in support of Crowley coach Catherine Bruder. (Photo provided by Jaden Polovina)

Bruder has publicly stated that this will be her final season coaching at Crowley, but with six juniors on this year’s roster who don’t want a new coach for their senior year, she’s beginning to consider coming back for one more run.

“I’m really tired, but I also don’t want to possibly ruin their senior year,” said Bruder, who’s in her seventh year as Crowley’s coach. “I definitely don’t want to do it again, however you kind of have to do things you don’t want to do sometimes just to make sure that everybody else is taken care of.”

Polovina will wrap up her prep volleyball career this fall before resuming her role as the starting goalie on the soccer team in the winter. She’s a multi-sport athlete at Crowley who has also been involved with the track and field and cross country teams.

“She wants to play and do everything and be the best at whatever she’s in at the time,” Bruder said. “Really, skill-wise, she’s always coming back and doing things better than what she was before.”

Polovina’s work ethic is what sets her apart as a team captain. Always hustling in practice and never ready to quit, she’s a perfectionist, almost to a fault. But Bruder has seen her mature in that regard over the years, and learn to accept that not everything will always go according to plan.

All the while, Polovina continues to develop as a player and never makes excuses for the hands she’s grown to embrace.

“She’s always been a person who finishes everything,” Bruder said. “She doesn’t cheat at workouts. She doesn’t walk in practice. She’s always trying to be better all the time. She wants to learn. She wants that knowledge. She wants to be challenged.

“She’s basically the ideal athlete.”

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

Girls basketball was among the leaders in popularity in high school sports two decades ago, but according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, the sport has lost 19 percent of its participation since 2002.

Last year, basketball fell to the fourth-most popular girls sport by participation, according to data released this month by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Meanwhile, track and field, the top sport among girls, grew 10%. Volleyball and soccer also saw participation increases at 15% and 27%, respectively.

Overall, boys and girls sports at the high school level declined 4% since 2019 in the first national survey of the post-pandemic era. In that same time, girls basketball dropped 7%.

With TV ratings for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and the WNBA on the rise, the decline in participation at the scholastic level is even more striking.

The WSJ report indicates that several forces are driving the decline, including the reality that more athletes are sticking to one sport year-round. Other factors include schools adding other sports, which have lured athletes away from the court, and the suggestion of coaches that some girls view basketball as too difficult, or not “girly” enough, to play.

Clay County (Tenn.) guard Abby Head, right, dribbles against Gleason guard Alayna Anderson during the Class 1A state tournament on March 10 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (The Tennessean via USA TODAY NETWORK)

“It’s sad,” Justin F. Kimball (Texas) girls basketball coach Erica Delley told the WSJ. “That’s why I came back, to make a difference and try to encourage kids to play.”

Delley is a first-year coach at her alma mater, where she played in the early 2000s when the program was a regional power. The Knights had just one player from last year’s team signed up to play, according to Delley, but she was able to convince two others to return before recruiting two dozen more with T-shirts and a promise that she’d teach them the game. Most of her team has never played basketball before.

In Texas, there is an issue with parity between powerhouse programs and smaller programs with depleted rosters, partly because of open-enrollment policies. Despite the state’s surging population, girls basketball participation has dropped 38% in the last two decades.

“A lot of athletes are specializing sooner,” Mansfield (Texas) girls basketball coach Brooke Brittain told the WSJ. “If their parents are paying thousands of dollars for them to play [club] volleyball, they don’t want them missing practice to play a basketball game.”

Iowa is another example of the decline in girls basketball participation. Girls have played high school basketball in Iowa for more than a century in front of packed crowds, but the state now has half as many players as it did during the late 1990s.

While the quality of top players remains high, many girls are choosing sports that require less specialized skill and are less exerting than basketball, according to former Valley (Iowa) girls basketball coach Josef Sigrist.

“I think club volleyball and softball and soccer in some respects are doing OK because they don’t require the physical task on your body that maybe basketball does,” Sigrist told the WSJ.

Following the overlap of a large club volleyball tournament and high school district playoffs on Presidents Day weekend in Nebraska, Creighton volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth tweeted, “VB is negatively affecting BB participation. I’m grateful for the depth of VB talent in this state, but not at the demise of BB.”

Booth said in an interview that club tournaments have become so important that some athletes won’t participate in high school basketball in order to avoid letting down their club volleyball coaches and teammates with potential absences. With girls basketball participation down 28% since 2002 in Nebraska, Booth said she encourages multisport participation.

The number of girls basketball teams has dropped 12% in Nebraska over the last two decades, which is a result of school closures, consolidations and cooperative sponsorships, according to the Nebraska School Activities Association.

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.