FRANKLIN, TENN. - Sunnyside's Ashlee Maldonado has been making a name for herself in AAU basketball circles.
The soon-to-be sixth grade student has been playing round ball for several years, exhibiting skills that Coach Josh Caffrey took note of. Last November he called the Maldonado family, inviting the young athlete to join him in forming a team of fifth grade girls with a passion for hoops.
According to the youngster's father, Rick, the team consisted of two girls from Prosser, two players from Yakima and three athletes from Selah as well.
Mr. Maldonado joined the effort, serving as assistant coach to the team that became HD (High Definition).
The youngsters, according to the assistant coach, competed in 12 tournaments and practiced with one another at least once each week.
HD defeated every team they met on the court and this past April competed in a National qualifier for the opportunity to travel to Franklin, Tenn.
The team's hopes and hard work were rewarded because HD was the top-ranked team in Washington's AAU fifth grade division standings, earning them a berth at Nationals, which was held June 24-29 at the A Games Sports Complex in Franklin, Tenn.
"There were 41 teams participating," said Mr. Maldonado.
The younger Maldonado, quiet by nature, said she was overwhelmed upon arriving at the sports complex.
"I didn't know what to expect...there were so many teams," she said.
Mr. Maldonado said HD was also seeded in one of the toughest pools at the tournament.
"The team won the pool by points," he said, stating there was a three-way tie between the four teams in the pool after the first round of competition.
There were 12 pools in all. Within the pool HD initially competed in were the West Virginia Breakers, Best Choice of Kentucky and Illinois, and Brigitt Williams All Stars.
"We lost to the West Virginia Breakers, but all four teams had one loss by the end of the pool," said Mr. Maldonado, stating HD won the pool by a two-point differential.
That secured the first round victory and HD moved into the Sweet 16 championship bracket.
"It was crazy," said Mr. Maldonado.
Young Ashlee said, "Our team hoped to beat a few teams."
She said there were some nerves, but she knew to let her coaches worry about the brackets.
"I trusted the coaches and worried about making sure I played the best basketball I could," said the young athlete.
In the quarterfinals, HD lost to the eventual champions of the national tournament, the Tennessee Lady Trotters.
The loss, said Mr. Maldonado, dropped HD into the consolation brackets.
The team, he said, never gave up. They defeated two more teams, including Comets-Hazinsky in the final round for 7th/8th place honors.
HD, representing the Yakima Valley and Inland Empire AAU, won the final game, 45-26, for seventh place honors.
"What's interesting is that other coaches took notice of the little girl from Sunnyside," said Mr. Maldonado, stating he was approached from coaches from across the U.S. who saw the potential in the younger Maldonado.
"They were impressed with her style of play," he said, stating the young athlete averaged 15 points, eight assists and 10 boards throughout the tournament.
"She also knows how to steal the ball, averaging three grabs per game," said the proud father.
The younger Maldonado said, "It felt good to compete and meet players from other parts of the country."
She said knowing other coaches feel she has potential as an athlete inspires her and boosts her confidence level.
The young athlete said she plans on continuing to play basketball. She will play AAU ball this coming year and wants to join the programs at Harrison Middle School, as well as Sunnyside High School when she qualifies.
"Nationals was a great experience...I didn't think we could make it as far as we did and it confirms all my team's hard work was worth it," said the young Maldonado.
"It was great and I enjoy telling my friends about it."