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Notre Dame helps middle school girls receive education at NCAA Women’s Final Four

By Kristen Leigh Porter

t might have been spring break for Denver-area schools, but the NCAA and Notre Dame women’s basketball team recently helped a group of middle school students receive a once-in-a-lifetime education during the NCAA Junior Journalism Workshop held at the 2012 Women’s Final Four.

Twenty-eight seventh- and eighth-grade girls attended a Notre Dame press conference, open locker room access period and open practice at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver. Participants interviewed the Fighting Irish student-athletes about the importance of academics and time management, engaging in community service, being a positive role model and developing and maintaining a healthy self-image. After receiving instruction from local teachers and professionals, the young women wrote about what they learned from the experience.

“It's always inspiring to our players and staff to be able to see such bright and gifted young people exploring the possibilities of a career in journalism, while also getting a chance to meet and engage with student-athletes like our Notre Dame women's basketball players who have been in their shoes and are taking that next step in following their dreams,” said Chris Masters, associate athletic media relations director at Notre Dame. “I hope it was as much fun for this year's workshop participants as it was for all of us.”

This was the fifth year of the NCAA Junior Journalism program and each session has been a resounding success, said Tina Krah, director of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship.

“We are delighted to offer this opportunity each year to the young women from our NCAA Women’s Final Four host city and appreciate the chance to contribute in some small way to the education of the Junior Journalism Workshop participants,” Krah said. “Our women’s basketball student-athletes really enjoy interacting with the young women.”

Appreciative of her inclusion in the program was Melissa Larson, a digital media, multimedia and electronic publications teacher at Mesa Middle School, a public school in the southern suburb of Castle Rock. Nine of her students attended the NCAA Junior Journalism Workshop, which she described as “educational, inspirational and even life-changing.”

“It was an amazing opportunity for my students to learn about sports journalism,” said Larson, who also served as a group leader for the workshop. “They learned so much, and were so inspired by the Notre Dame players. They absolutely loved taking part in the press conference and watching the practice session. Each of my students told me that this event taught them so much, and gave them new role models to watch and look up to.”

Attendees also learned the ins and outs of the sports communication field from professionals working at the Women’s Final Four. Delivering a keynote address was USA Today sportswriter and Denver native Vicki Michaelis. Panelists included ESPN and Dial Global Sports broadcaster Krista Blunk, ESPN publicist Rachel Margolis and veteran sportswriters Wendy Parker (Basketball Times) and Michelle Smith (ESPNW).

In addition to the Mesa group, students from Alexander Dawson School, Bill Roberts School, Drake Middle School, Hamilton Middle School, Ken Caryl Middle School, St. John's Lutheran School and Sierra Middle School participated in the workshop. The experience included a trip to Tourney Town™ Refreshed by Coca-Cola Zero™ at the Colorado Convention Center, where they wrote their stories and taped mock broadcast segments.

“The girls were given a rare gift to experience, first-hand, the fast-paced world of sports media,” said group leader Nancy Nyhus, a theater teacher and yearbook/journalism advisor at Hamilton Middle School in Denver. “What an amazing opportunity to be able to speak personally with a group of talented, focused role models for young women. My students will talk about this day for years.”

Participant Stories

Sophia Martinez, Lauren Anderson and Cami Heth

The women's basketball team at Notre Dame goes out into their community and helps out in many ways. Specifically, they go out into homeless shelters, as well as reading to elementary school students.

Brittany Mallory said, "Our fans really give a lot to us, and they support us so much so we’re trying to give back to them."

With the girls being on the road so much keeping up with school work, a sport and community service is a tough task to manage.

"We have great advisors and support staff that help us kind of manage our time," Brittany said. 

Notre Dame student-athletes try to help in their community as much as possible with the time that they have.

"Being able to get out there and just let them know, look, you have role models, you have people that want to help you out," Skylar Diggins said about her community service. 

Most teams are involved in community service, and Notre Dame is proud to be one of those teams in NCAA women's basketball.

"I think it's important especially being from South Bend, just to get out there," Skylar said.

Brittany and Skylar both agree that for future basketball players they need to focus most on getting good grades in school. Practice makes perfect.

"Get to the gym, get a basketball, dribble outside; get a tennis ball, dribble in the house. That’s what I did," Skylar said.

The road to the NCAA Women’s Final Four is paved with sacrifice by the stars of the big show at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

For Notre Dame sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa, being a role model involves representing her college, family, community and her native Canada. Student-athletes are expected to set an example for their classmates. They always have to be aware of their actions off the court.

"I have to sacrifice a lot of stuff, but we also gain a lot from our losses," said Achonwa prior to the start of the Women's Final Four. "Everyone always has their eyes on me and it feels like I am under the spotlight."

 Being a role model affects this player by what she says and what she does every day.

"I want people to see me as hard-working, humble, and competitive. I'm not a regular college student, I can't go out and eat with my friends and go to parties,"  Achonwa said.

In the big picture, it's only a small price to pay considering the rewards for being a student-athlete.
Take it from Notre Dame's star from Canada: "I feel blessed to be where I am today."

While most students become stressed after balancing school and a few extracurricular activities, Notre Dame women's basketball players Skylar Diggins and Brittany Mallory remain cool and collected while balancing school and NCAA women's basketball. "Practice makes permanent," said Diggins, and this is certainly true of the players' abilities to manage their basketball and school work.

Both Brittany Mallory and Skylar Diggins majored in management-entrepreneurship. Mallory has earned her bachelor's degree and is starting her graduate studies. This alone requires scholarly discipline to be able to pursue your studies and manage time for basketball.

When head coach Muffet McGraw was asked what the biggest distraction for the players was, she answered the media. McGraw also is able to manage her time well. She kills it during basketball season, then she likes to take the summers off and spend time with her family.

During Women’s Final Four weekend, with the potential for two more games in the season, McGraw's family time is right around the corner. Hopefully this relaxing time will come with a victory for Notre Dame.

Skylar Diggins, a junior at Notre Dame, is a guard for the Fighting  Irish. As a student at Alexander Dawson who has a few activities after school, I think I have a lot on my plate. As it turns out, Skylar Diggins has to give a lot more thought to time management. 

Diggins has a major in business (management-entrepreneurship), has lots of schoolwork, and is on one of the top four basketball teams in the country. Can you imagine? " Mostly fun classes" is what Diggins says she takes now. When asked what advice she would give, Diggins said, "Set your mind to it, and you can do it."

Notre Dame's incredible coach, Muffet McGraw, also needs to be good at time management. McGraw loves spending time with her family, and is also the coach of the Fighting Irish. During the season McGraw works hard with her team, but in the summer she declines coaching opportunities to spend time with her family.

All of my spring break I have been relaxing while Diggins has been training hard for her games. Soon I will go back to school and Diggins will have her Women’s Final Four games. We will both be working hard on time management. 

"Set your mind to it, and you can do it," said Skylar Diggins, guard of Notre Dame's women's basketball team. Diggins along with her teammate Brittney Mallory travel around the United States playing basketball games and balancing school work at the same time while most students struggle with their assignments in their hometown.

These two girls major in business (management-entrepreneurship). Mallory already has her bachelor’s degree and hopes to get her master’s degree soon, while Diggins will graduate in short order.

When Muffet McGraw, the team’s head coach, was asked what acted as the biggest distraction to the girls she immediately exclaimed "the media." The remarkable Fighting Irish women's basketball players are on an endeavor to win a national championship and deal with the media while juggling their homework and basketball schedules.

Procrastinating is not an option for these basketball stars. Basketball is important for all of these devoted players but staying on top of their work is the first priority and what they advise to young girls.

This is one piece of advice this that this young girl will take back to school with her after spring break.

In a brief interview with Notre Dame women’s basketball student-athletes Brittney Mallory and Skylar Diggins and coach Muffet McGraw, we found that the way you arrange your time is very important in college sports. Having to do a sport and school can be very taxing. Here is how the players and coach manage it all.

Diggins has been playing college basketball for Notre Dame for two years. Diggins believes in trying hard.

"Practice makes permanent," she said.

You can tell that this is one girl that we can guarantee a good future in front of her. 

Mallory is known for being defined as a coach on the floor; she knows the offensive and defensive schemes by heart. These girls are both guards and very talented.

Normally all sports stars are known to be either rude and selfish or just negatively seen such as Dennis Rodman. But the student-athletes of the Notre Dame basketball team are well-respected, hard working girls.

Girls like Kaila Turner want to be seen as young ladies who carry themselves with the utmost respect and are hard workers. She is one of the many well-mannered girls of Notre Dame college. Turner chooses her friends wisely, ones that stay out of trouble and have goals for their careers. 

Kayla McBride was not always confident in herself. When she was younger she was short and often teased. But she says, "It just went in one ear and out the other." McBride eventually grew to be 5-11 and a great guard. 

Although the fame is amazing, basketball players are having to work harder in school. Markisha Wright said she has to work before and after practices and games. Out of basketball, each girl on the team works very hard to keep a good image. Wright says, "To be a good role model you have to have goals and be able to accomplish them in a good way."

Natalie Achonwa feels that even though people say the team is under-sized, being smaller is just a better motivation for the whole team. About the teasing Achonwa says, "Never judge until you walk a while on their shoes." 

All and all the Notre Dame basketball team is well collected, positive influences, and more about "the fight in the dog then the size" according to McBride. 

In junior high, every student goes through many life-changing experiences, and some do not have a positive influence. As many young adults may have told you, it does not get much easier as you travel farther in life.

Even with the high pressure and fame, NCAA college students on the Notre Dame women's basketball team have learned how to keep a positive self-image throughout high school teasing and stress. In a locker room interview, Ariel Braker admits that in her childhood, she was pressured about her height (Braker is 6-1) in junior high and high school. When asked if she was ever teased, her reply was: "Maybe when I was younger, but my parents told me to just embrace it- play a sport where height isn't a race." She says that knowing your place and staying down to earth helps deal with the negative peer pressure.

According to Whitney Holloway, being a 5-4 basketball player does not exactly fit the stereotype, but: "You learn to embrace it and make up for it on the court. There's a lot of people watching and that just encourages you in a positive way."

Although these women are put on a high podium being college athletes, the issues with having a positive self-image will still follow you. The students who learn to manage academics, athletics, and confidence are the ones who succeed in life. The rest of the team agrees that having a positive self-image is difficult at times, but if you surround yourself with good influences, it will bring out the best in you.

Notre Dame's basketball team is playing at the 2012 NCAA Women’s Final Four. Confidence has helped these young women become basketball stars. 

Peer pressure shapes self-image for girls in middle school, but the girls on this team didn't feed into it. "Being a girl that's been better than the boys can be hard, but it's okay to be different," said Natalie Novosel. 

Brittany Mallory was well balanced in school because of her being girly and playing basketball. Not all players fit in as well as Mallory. Novosel was a tomboy and naturally shy.

Being a part of the team has helped the players with their confidence. 

"I always choose my friends wisely to have time for them." Kaila Turner said.

Some advice Ariel Braker gives is to surround yourself with good people who like you for who you are. 

Mallory gives good advice to middle school girls: "Be yourself, the more people you meet, the more you can learn from them."

The women’s basketball players of Notre Dame work hard both on the basketball court as well as with community service. Brittany Mallory described that "balancing school, basketball, and community service is challenging when they're on the road with basketball, it's a lot to handle."

With school work it's hard for the players to balance it when on the road traveling for basketball.

"It's a lot to balance school work and basketball, but we have great advisers and a support staff that will help you kind of manage your time," said Brittany Mallory.

The basketball players do a variety of community service.

"With our team we are at the homeless shelter and at the elementary schools reading to the kids."

The players think it's very important to get out there and help with their community.

The players like community service because their fans support them a lot and they like to give back to them. "I like just being able to get out there and just letting people know that they have a role model," said Skylar Diggins.

We all saw what happened on the basketball court, but in basketball program of Norte Dame, community service was very important to the student athletes. The women who played basketball always found time in the day to dedicate their time to give back to the community.

"Our team -- We do a lot of community service", said Brittany Mallory, the guard from Notre Dame. The team enjoyed going to homeless shelters and reading to the elementary school kids. For the team it could be stressful to balance their time, but they had great advisors and a support staff to help them.

There is an importance to giving back to the community, and the team exemplified that. Skylar Diggins, a guard for Notre Dame, said, "Just being involved in the community is important, and Norte Dame has always done that." 

On and off the court the basketball players from Notre Dame worked hard to get a win. They’ve got self-respect as well as respect for the community through giving back their time. They tried to get a view of how they supported and encouraged all of their fans through community service. They saw how they became role models to their community.  

Family plays a huge part in Notre Dame making it to the Final Four. Each family encourages each player to want to strive for their goal.

Devereaux Peters knows no matter what her family will be by her side. Whether they're at her games or not they’re always there cheering her on.

Fraderica Miller's family always pushed her hard to make her the basketball player she is today. "Basketball is going to be the hardest thing you've ever done but it with also be fun and just keep your faith in it," she said.

While watching her father coach a basketball team, Kaila Turner then found her love and passion for basketball. "No matter where life takes you, just be true to yourself," Turner said.

Their role models have made them the basketball women they are today. Peters says that the team strives to be "somebody that people look up to."