The United STARS, an eighth grade AAU boys basketball team comprised of athletes from the Ithaca, Lansing, Newfield and Corning school districts, placed 10th at the AAU National Tournament on July 19 in Orlando, FL. Five hundred teams competed to qualify for the tournament, and the STARS were one of 50 teams that wound up being selected.
There are 12 players on the team, with half of the team being made up of athletes from the Ithaca school district: Justin Yearwood, Tyrone “Biggie” Dean, Luke Little, Trevor Clark, River Tuffalo and Dylan Rosenblum.
Jackson Casey and Reed Walrath represent Corning on the team, while Jalen Hardison and Austin Jenney represent Newfield. Josh Hunter is the lone player from Lansing on the roster.
Head Coach Tim Little, father of Luke Little, said he was most impressed with how determined each player was to improve their skills.
“Just the way that they continued to come together as a team and the way that they continued to get better every practice and every tournament,” Tim Little said. “That’s what is exciting for me, and that’s what I’m most proud about. They’re always ready to work when we get together.”
The team defeated the Rochester WolfPack in the national qualifier championship game back in May in Seneca Falls, which earned them a bid in the national tournament. Little has been working with the same group of players since they were in fourth grade. He became their head coach when they entered fifth grade. He said he has seen each of these players improve their skills and savviness for the game of basketball over those years.
“It’s just the knowledge of the game and their skill level, which has allowed us to play in more competitive tournaments where you have more competitive teams,” Little said. “Each year as they progressed, it allowed us that opportunity as well as each year we have participated in that national qualifier and have lost. This is the first year we’ve actually won it.”
The STARS placed in the top quarter of several of those highly competitive tournaments this past spring where the team, whose roster is only made up of players from Tompkins and Steuben Counties, faced off against teams filled with players all over the state. The squad won a handful of local tournaments (such as the Off The Glass Showcase in Binghamton, Ernie Davis Classic in Elmira and the Cortland Shootout in Cortland), where they played against teams with rosters constructed more like itself.
Little said there were times when the squad was overmatched in certain tournaments and struggled against the competition; however, he said he was pleased with how prepared the players were for those matchups.
“We’ve come across some really competitive teams,” he said. “A couple we fared very well in them. A couple we won, and some we lost. But I never felt like this team has… been outmatched in any of the games or in any of the tournaments that we participated in. It just shows that they have improved each year, and they were ready for this type of competition.”
In terms of Hunter, Hardison and Jenney, team manager Matthew Casey, father of Jackson Casey, had nothing but high praise for them. Casey compared Hunter’s game to Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant.
“In terms of his playing ability, he’s just got a really sweet shot and touch,” Casey said. “He’s lengthy…he works hard—nice kid. He’s always giving his opinion about the game. He’s always engaged in the game.”
For Hardison, Casey dubbed him the nickname “The Cooler” because “he doesn’t get rattled.”
“When we need points and nobody else seems to be doing it, he steps up,” Casey said.
He also believes Hardison, his son Casey and Dean are one of the top backcourts in the state in their respective age group due to their superb speed, ball-handling skills and court vision.
With Jenney, Casey described him as a “quiet assassin,” in terms of his offensive skills. In terms of the team overall, Casey said he was most impressed with the level of commitment each player brought with them.
“A lot of these kids play other sports, but they are committed to this team,” Casey said. “They’ve had to sacrifice [time] from other things…The other good thing about this team is that they’re all nice kids, and their parents are nice, so it makes it easier…they’re nice kids who do well in school.”