Gaucho Girls Got Game

UCSB B-Ball Thrills Kids

Third grader Ally Mintzer with UCSB player Emilie Johnson.
Courtesy Photo

If you’ve never been to a UCSB Women’s Basketball game, you’ve been missing something. Last Saturday I took my children and their friend to a basketball game as part of a mentoring program sponsored by the UCSB Athletics Department. The girls, and my son, were invited to sit in chairs on the court in what is called Thunder Row, get free popcorn and sodas in the VIP room, and meet the players after the game.

Cat Neushul

While my son could only talk about the first can of Coke he had ever had in his life, I found myself completely engrossed in the game. Since we were right on the court, I was both thrilled—I loved being able to see how hard the players were throwing the ball to each other—and terrified that one of the players would miss the ball, and one of us would get clocked in the head. Luckily, no one got hit, but we did get to pass the ball in to the players when it went out of bounds. Must be what Jack Nicholson feels like at the Lakers games.

The Gauchos lost to UC Davis, final score 62-54, but the game was well worth watching. Some of the best moments came as Emilie Johnson stole the ball, dribbled up the court, and scored – over and over again. It was fun to watch Meagan Williams put up several three-pointers, and smile as she ran back up the court. Ariana Gnekow and Mekia Valentine also had moments of greatness. Being so close was incredibly exciting. You felt like you were part of the game. Even though the Gauchos were behind throughout, they didn’t give up, and it was inspiring to see them come from behind again and again. They seemed to really love the game, and celebrated great plays, even when they knew that it wouldn’t end in a win as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Third grader Ally Mintzer with UCSB player Mekia Valentine.
Courtesy Photo

The crowd provided enthusiastic support, yelling such encouragement as “We can do this, come on!” and the ubiquitous referee hazing that has to happen at all games: “Get it together! Agree on the rules!”

Besides the game itself, there were other things to like about the whole experience. There were the cheerleaders who made pyramids, held each other up, and did somersaults in the air. If you are like me, you can’t keep your eyes off the cheerleaders as they are lifted in the air because you always wonder if one might fall. One of them did this time. Fortunately, she didn’t touch the ground; she just ended up upside down for a moment. She did not look happy, and I let out a sigh of relief when she was back on the ground.

There are also some audience-participation activities, with names like “Dance for Your Dinner.” I made my daughter do this one. She had to compete with three other girls in a dance-off in front of the Thunderdome audience. The winner got a $10 gift certificate to Silvergreens.

After the game, the Gauchos signed autographs, posed for pictures, and chatted with the crowd, a big thrill especially for the girls who had come out to see them. Kathy Mintzer, who had made the arrangements for my daughter’s basketball team to get free tickets, seats on the court, and the opportunity to meet the players after the game, said her daughter, too, loved meeting the players: “It was huge.” She said that Ally, her daughter, got to see them as real people. “She sees them as someone she could be,” she added. She said that this was one of the benefits of the program, to help young girls see the players as people they may emulate.

Girls do not always see sports as an option, though they might be encouraged to go into ballet, dance, or other traditionally girl-oriented activities. “I think it is great the way they are trying to reach out to girls. There is such an emphasis on boys (and sports),” Mintzer said. “It’s more than just about basketball,” she explained. The mentoring program seeks to empower girls by sending the message that healthy bodies and healthy minds should be the goal.

Mintzer said she found out about the mentoring program through the Girl Scouts, but wasn’t sure everyone would feel free to take advantage of it, thinking it was only for girls on basketball teams. But this isn’t the case.

There are all sorts of incredible programs like this one in the I.V. area, just waiting to be taken advantage of. Some of these perks of residing here are well publicized, such as having UCSB soccer players come to an AYSO practice. But it would be easy to miss other great opportunities if you don’t happen to know people who know people. Because we took advantage of this one, we learned a few things, and in a most memorable and convincing way: We found out that winning isn’t everything; how you play the game counts. The Gaucho girls didn’t give up. They kept on fighting right until the end, and that’s what’s important.


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