Felix Andrews enjoys challenging the teams he coaches.
One of his tried-and-true methods is putting his teams up against older competition. That was the case with his first-year squad, the Columbia County-based Augusta Lady Runners, as they started Amateur Athletic Union play for the summer season.
"It pays off because they're playing against better competition," Andrews said. "When you go back to playing against kids your age, they're so much more advanced."
Most of the players on the Lady Runners' roster qualify for the AAU's U-12 division. Andrews could have gone with only U-12 players, but he decided to play U-13 for the team's first four tournaments.
In Greenville, S.C., the Lady Runners won two games and lost one. Then, they won one and lost two in each of a pair of Augusta tournaments. Finally, in Cincinnati, Ohio, they again won one and lost two.
The hard work paid off.
Dropping back down to U-12 for an Augusta AAU Nationals qualifier, the Lady Runners won the event.
"They played very well," Andrews said. "After playing up, their skill level was up so much higher."
The Nationals for the U-12 division are in Rochester, Minn., this year. Because the trip would be such a long one and many of the players had vacations planned, the team decided they would not play in the Nationals.
Instead, the Lady Runners are targeting next summer's 13-U Nationals in Clarksville, Tenn.
Andrews said he plans to have a tryout prior to next summer's season so the team will have more players for a possible trip to Nationals.
While they aren't going to Minnesota, the season continues. The Lady Runners will again play up a division at a tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio, later this month.
Andrews coached his son's AAU teams until he graduated. A few months ago, his daughter, Iman, and his wife convinced him to pick up coaching again, this time to coach Iman.
Andrews has had help in the process. Quincey Shepherd, Perry Ferguson, Eugene Scott and Tasha Dancy have served as assistant coaches. The result has been a close-knit squad.
"We're more of a family than we are a team," Leah Ferguson, a rising eighth-grader at Lakeside Middle, said of her teammates. "We hang out outside of basketball, too."
Kallen Leeseberg said the most enjoyable part of playing AAU is traveling to different tournaments. Her favorite experience so far was playing at the gigantic ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
"The tournaments are always fun because we get to travel to new places and do a lot of out-of-state tournaments," the rising eighth-grader at Stallings Island Middle said. "We get to meet a lot of new people."
Iman Andrews said the team feels like a family on the road, too.
"Just being together, playing basketball and having fun," the rising seventh-grader at Riverside Middle said. "And when we get to the hotel, we'll go swimming, shopping, eat together. And just laugh."
Team mom April Shepherd, whose daughter, Charisma, plays on the team, said the team has a committed group of parents.
"Some teams have parents who might complain about playing time." she said. "But we all just support them."
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