Dull. Dull. Dull. Basketballs bounce off the hardwood floors as the eighth-grade Fly Girls team practices in the Heritage Academy gym.
The girls practice downhills while coach Shelley McElveen offers equal parts encouragement and advice on what can be improved.
These girls are here to learn the basics of basketball, but more importantly, they are learning about life.
“We have some girls who are struggling, living in poverty,” McElveen said. “We also have girls who do not live in poverty. … We have girls from different sides of the spectrum. It gives them the opportunity to do the right thing and be in the right place. They know that we do not tolerate any disrespect or bad behavior. It gives them a chance to just do something else and keeps them out of trouble. We are just like another adult in these children’s lives, watching over them and providing them with the guidance they need to grow and stay out of trouble. There are a lot of crazy things going on in this world and we don’t want our girls to be a part of it.”
The team was founded in 2021 by Tamara Tippett when her daughter expressed an interest in the sport. However, the number of options was very limited.
“My son, who was in sixth grade, had all these opportunities here to play with different teams and travel basketball, but my daughter didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play,” Tippett said. “And it wasn’t just her. She had friends. … We put it out there, seeing who would be interested in playing, thinking we’d just make a fifth-grade team. We got such a great response, we started with five teams this year because we had so many girls interested, not just in fifth grade, but from fifth grade up through high school.”
Tippett said one thing became clear to her when the organization was created, it was, as McElveen said, about more than basketball.
“Once I started this, it became clear that it wasn’t just about basketball,” Tippett said. “It’s about making an impression on our young girls. To be a mentor and give them life and spiritual guidance. We give them a way out. It is a privilege to play women’s basketball. A lot comes with it. Good grades, good behavior, respectful attitude, these are things we can teach them when we are in practice or when we have different meetings. We meet girls with problems at home, problems at school. And because we have this program, it gives them a reason to do better and a reason to get good grades.”
The group is also competitive.
The group recently went to Ruston, Louisiana to participate in a tournament. Fly Girls participated in the championship in all four age groups.
The sixth and eighth grade teams won the championship.
Teams participate in tournaments across the country.
Not all trips are cheap, however, and the group runs almost exclusively on donations and sponsorships.
“We’re also doing fundraising and looking for sponsorships,” McElveen said. “It’s expensive to travel. We have raised a lot of funds and we also have sponsorships from local businesses. The community is behind us and getting involved. We are very grateful and appreciate that.”
A place to grow
Improving girls’ basketball skills is an equally important part of the Fly Girls organization.
“When I started, I couldn’t layup or hit,” said Jalisha McShane, an eighth-grade player on the team. “Since I’ve been under (McElveen), I’ve been getting better and now I’m doing my shots and putts.”
All the girls joined for different reasons. Hunter Hill, an eighth grader at Heritage Academy, joined to improve his game for his school team.
“I’ve been trying to get better for school ball because our team isn’t very good,” Hill said. “Running certainly helps, as does exercise. It made me faster and definitely made me a better athlete overall.”
All the girls have found not only friends, but also family in their teammates.
“This team is based around family and we put God first,” said Madison Grace, a player. “We make sure we stay humble and work hard every time we come to practice. It was a really great experience. Everyone feels welcome here. Everyone talks to each other. We believe that our coaches and staff and parents really support us.”
The girls on the team are also from all over. There are girls from Louisville, Tupelo, Caledonia, Amory, New Hope, Columbus and Starkville, McElveen said.
Although all teams have fairly full rosters, anyone interested in joining the team can still have a chance.
McElveen said girls just need to reach out and they will try to find a place for them if at all possible.
“We have pretty full rosters, but we’ll potentially take a few picks to different teams,” McElveen said. “Just contact me or (Tippet) and we’ll put them on the team if they want to be on it.”
She said those interested can email [email protected] or call her at (912) 223-3634.
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