COLUMBIA — Four young girls laughed and chatted as they chased loose balls around Rock Bridge's gym before a game Monday night.
Later during timeouts, the group of 5- to 7-year-olds timidly walked up to exhausted Lafayette High School basketball players, who were finishing conversations about game strategy, to hand them water. When greeted with a thankful smile, they excitedly ran back to the cooler to retrieve more.
Monday marked both Rock Bridge girls’ basketball’s first home game of the season as well as the first opportunity for Columbia elementary and middle school students to participate in the team’s “ball girl” program.
Eight elementary school students participated through retrieving balls before the game and handing out water to both teams and the referees during Rock Bridge’s 51-22 win against Lafayette High School.
Coach Jill Nagel said that the program started four years ago and has grown in popularity. At the beginning of the season, fliers go out to all girls in kindergarten through eighth grade in Rock Bridge’s attendance area and those interested are invited to a meeting. This year 29 girls signed up.
Nagel said that the girls are welcome to come to as many games as they want and to stay for junior varsity games, varsity games or both. They are also invited down to the locker room after wins to meet the players.
“We keep it pretty loose because we just want to expose the kids to basketball and just get them in the gym,” she said. “You know, they read about the kids and see the kids’ pictures in the paper and for your first grader or kindergartener to actually see Amaya Williams in person and to get to give her a high five, you know that’s the highlight of their night.”
Sophomore forward Carmen Boessen is one of a handful of Rock Bridge varsity players that enjoyed participating in the program when it began while she was in middle school.
“When I was a ball girl, I thought it was a really good atmosphere seeing the pressure the players had on them how they interact with each other,” she said. “I thought it was a really great experience, and I’m happy I took part in that.”
Boessen said she enjoys having the ball girls there during a game.
“I never realized how cute they are,” she said. “They're adorable. Whenever they come up and give you water, they just make you smile and that’s sometimes what you need when you come out of the game.”
This is the second season that Madison Schodderley, 6, has participated in the program. She said that she likes it “because you get to hand out water” and that her favorite part of basketball is shooting. Olivia Ramsey, 5, also enjoyed handing out water and said it was her first time being a ball girl. Grace Cunningham, 7, said that she likes giving the players the balls and is excited to play Upward Basketball in January. Isabella Hansen, 6, also enjoyed the experience.
“I like it because you get to pass the balls when they throw them out of bounds and you pass them back in,” she said. “My favorite part is giving the balls out.”
Nagel said that the ball girls provide more than just help with basketballs and water.
“We always talk about how you've got little eyes on you,” Nagel said. “Those girls are big eyes staring at them all the time when they come off of a timeout and what they’re saying or doing, and so it’s good for our girls to remind them about their actions and how they need to behave.”
In turn, Nagel said the players become people for the young girls to look up to on and off the court.
"It didn't really start as a recruitment thing, but more of a way to bring awareness to girls basketball and to give the little girls good role models," she said. "We like to think that our kids are good role models and so it showed them some that they can look up to and follow."
Rock Bridge (4-1) led Lafayette (3-2) the entire game and held the Lancers to four points in the fourth quarter. Boessen led the Rock Bridge with 13 points. Hannah Dressler and Emily Holt also contributed eight points each.