Marion’s “Baby Rams” come within one win of national title game

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 10, 2005

CHICAGO–Contrasted with places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Iowa City, the town of Marion, Alabama, must have looked a little out of place at the July 20-25 North America Youth Sports Association national basketball championships. But Marion’s Albert Turner Elementary School “Baby Rams” proved they were anything but out of place at the tournament, rolling to a 6-1 record and a spot in the national semifinals.

“It was a great experience for them,” said ATES head coach Albert Turner, Jr. “To be able to play at that level is an experience they’ll never forget.”

The Baby Rams advanced to the national championship, held at Chicago’s Forest View Park Recreation Center, by virtue of their state and then Southwest Region championships won in April and May. The championship tournament consisted of two phases, first a six-game preliminary schedule and than a single-elimination “Final Four” tourney involving the top four teams after preliminary play.

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The Baby Rams immediately proved they belonged in Chicago, finishing the six-game opening round with the tournament’s only perfect 6-0 record. Winning by an average margin of victory of nine points, ATES rolled past Los Angeles’s Mentor Elementary, Chicago’s North Park, greater Illinois’s Rockford Elementary and Illinois Basketball Academy, Wisconsin’s Longview and Wisconsin Prep, Iowa City’s First Step, and Indiana’s Parkview.

The Baby Rams were led by leading scorers forward Damon Bates and center Raymond Woods, but received contributions from a number of players including starting backcourt LaDarrius Tabb and DeVontae Knox and power forward Timothy Smith.

Despite their string of victories, Turner says the level of competition at the tournament was higher than even he expected, a testament to how well the Baby Rams performed in Chicago.

“The cupcake games were nowhere. I was very impressed with the quality of the kids and the kind of basketball we were playing against,” he says. “That we won each game in our class speaks volumes about the kind of team we had. Our only problem was that we didn’t finish it.”

Unfortunately, the Baby Rams could not play up to their top seeding coming out of the preliminary stage and fell 49-40 to Wisconsin-Longview in the tournament semifinals, a team they had defeated by 22 points earlier in the tournament.

Turner says that while he has been thrilled with his team’s performance throughout the Baby Rams’ season, the circumstances of the loss do make him wonder what could have been.

“I’m happy,” he says, “but not satisfied because we had the better team in that game. Our downfall was being overconfident. [Wisconsin-Longview] came out ready to play and we didn’t realize we were in a ball game until the ball game was about over with.”

On the positive side of things, Turner says the defeat helped drive home a point he had been making to his charges: that whether on or off the court, they should take nothing for granted and be willing to work towards whatever goals they wish to accomplish.

“That’s the focus, to get them prepared for basketball, but also to provide life lessons,” turner says. “We told them, in life, no one will ever just give you anything. That team wasn’t going to let them come in and walk over them again. That’s the greatest lesson we taught to them: you have to work hard for everything. No one’s going to give you anything in basketball, or in life. You’ve got to work hard and be determined to be the best you can be.”

Despite their disappointment, the players on the ATES team had a “dynamite” time in Chicago, Turner said, thanks to visits to ESPNZone, the homes of NBA stars Kendall Gill and Antoine Walker, and a Chicago White Sox game where the team was welcomed to the game on the scoreboard.

The trip would not have been possible, Turner said, without fervent support from the citizens of Perry County and county school officials, many of whom (including ATES principal Edwin Dial) made the trip to Chicago.

“The community in Perry County supported this trip wholeheartedly,” he said. “They exceeded any expectations we had and we appreciate their commitment. They did a yeoman’s job and we’d like to thank them.”

Between the Baby Rams’ play and the loud and vocal cheering section, by the end of the tournament Marion it didn’t seem quite as odd to have Marion in amongst the L.A.’s and Windy Cities of the world.

“Everyone wanted to know where Marion was,” Turner said. “We left a good impression.”

Members of the Turner Elementary team include Timothy Smith, LaDarius Tabb, Damius Evans, Raymond Woods, Vincent Savory, Devontae Knox, Radge’ Turner, Jamell King, Lester Jefferies, Damon Bates, Terry Woods and Marquentis Barnett.