By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
I spent much of last week watching playoff games in high school basketball, as it was “Championship Week.” Teams played for the right to become Section VI champions. I saw seven girls’ games and two boys’ contests; you gotta keep busy when the Sabres are on the road.
There are three main joys to such a week. The first is that I get to see some old acquaintances again. I covered the previous two girls high school seasons, and the administrators and coaches are generally good, friendly people. The kids seem to be in good hands, as far as I can tell.
The second is that the games are dramatic. It’s a best-of-one: the winner advances in the state tournament and the loser goes home to get ready for spring sports, club play or Netflix-watching. The students aren’t as good as hiding their emotions as their college and professional counterparts, and their excitement or sorrow (depending on the result) is unfiltered. You make a key basket or turnover at the wrong time, and you own that play for a long time. It can be cruel, but it’s the part of the bargain of playing at that level.
The third is the chance to see players improve. It might not be as obvious to someone who watches a season’s worth of games, but going a year between views can add a little perspective in judging the state of development.
In the seven girls’ games that I saw, three players jumped out at me. Angel Parker of Cardinal O’Hara is a 5-foot-6 guard who was handed the keys to the team after Anndea Zeigler graduated and went for Canisius. Parker leads the team in points and assists, although the numbers aren’t overwhelming because the Hawks win a lot of blowouts and the junior often exits the game early. Parker can get a shot anytime and anywhere she wants.
Then there’s Micaela Ryan of Sacred Heart, who checks in at over 6 feet but can play just about any position. Not only does she grab plenty of rebounds, but the ball goes to her for care when opponents’ defensive pressure ramps up. Ryan will play college ball at Elon.
Finally, there’s Amari DeBerry, a freshman who plays center for Williamsville South. She’s a special case.
It’s tough to miss DeBerry on the court, because she’s about 6-5. That height can make a huge difference in a game. Sometimes opponents think about taking a shot, but see DeBerry lurking in the area and then quickly pass off. Those other players know that an attempt to score will rarely reach its destination. DeBerry can play free safety on defense during a press, allowing teammates to take chances in the knowledge that help is only a handful of yards down the court.
On offense, DeBerry made a statement about her range of abilities in the first two minutes of the Section VI, A-1 final. She made a couple of nice moves in the low post to score after getting herself in position to accept an entry pass. Then DeBerry launched a three-pointer from the top of the key, and it swished.
The freshman is finishing up her third season on the varsity. I didn’t see her in seventh grade, but she obviously has worked on her game in the past year. DeBerry seems more confident in her moves around the basket, and is less foul-prone defensively. It’s almost like she’s growing up, which of course she is.
The rules are the same in women’s college basketball as they are in the men’s game: Height matters. Universities will go just about anywhere for someone who is tall and agile – even if enrollment is more than three years away. Representatives from teams from power conferences are already said to be making the trek to Williamsville South’s Main Street campus for a look.
And when those coaches get there, they have to ask themselves the unanswerable. How good is DeBerry going to become by the time she enters college?
Based on what we know now, DeBerry looks like someone who can earn an athletic scholarship after graduating from high school. (Note to Amari: Be sure to study along the way.) Who knows if someone like Geno Auriemma of Connecticut will show up at her front door some day? On-court thrills also figure to be in her future. She also looks like a player that will help the Billies go deep into the playoffs year after year. They have a date in the Far West Regionals on Saturday, so they are only a win away from making the state’s final four.
DeBerry also looks like a player that is going to be asked about her college plans about 6,000 times in the next few years. She might be getting 60,000 text messages and several hundred packages in the mail to go with it. Amari will get sick of it all at times, I’d bet, but that’s all part of the bargain too.
The possibilities are endless, but we’ll just have to wait for the next three years to go by to find out how the story turns out. In the meantime, it will be fun to watch DeBerry’s personal journey from a distance. Let’s hope there’s a happy ending for her in 2021.