COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO >> As they made the long journey from Connecticut to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, there was a feeling of breathless anticipation for the trio of Kiah Gillespie, Abby Laszewski and Desiree Elmore.
There was no doubting the excitement as the three were granted an opportunity very few Connecticut high school stars ever get. The list of nearly 150 players converging on Colorado Springs for the U.S. Under-17 trials had plenty of prospects from basketball hotbeds like Texas and California, which is pretty much par for the course. However, it is far more infrequent to see Nutmeg State prospects vying for spots on the U.S. junior national teams.
When they arrived on Wednesday and Thursday, most of their thoughts centered around the pure exhilaration of being able to square off against the best players in their age group. However, it wasn’t long before their competitive nature changed their attitudes from a “happy to be here” mind-set to one of “it’s time to show what I can do.”
“It definitely puts your mind-set of where your skills are, especially compared to little Connecticut, so you come out here and play against kids from all across the country,” said Gillespie, who is attempting to become the first Connecticut native to make a U.S. women’s national team since Nykesha Sales was on the 1999 senior national team.
“It probably determines where you are at and how you can better. There is a lot of support, more support than I have ever got. A lot of people are rooting for me, so I look at that as fuel to keep going strong.”
Elmore, a rising junior at Capital Prep who hails from East Hartford, was slowed by a tender right ankle which kept her from displaying her blistering speed in the open court. While she was among the first group of participants to be cut, Laszewski and Gillespie had much longer stays.
Laszewski, a 6-foot-3 rising junior at Avon High, survived the first two cuts as the roster was trimmed to 70 on Saturday. When the list was sliced to 46, Laszewski’s name was not on the list, but Gillespie, a Meriden native who was named the Gatorade state player of the year after a brilliant junior season at Capital Prep, was among the final 46.
“It would be something that I would never have even thought of,” Gillespie said about the possibility of being named to the 12-member U.S. U-17 team on Monday morning. “When I was younger you wouldn’t think of getting invited, and it is something that is so unrealistic, but it would be a huge accomplishment and I would be proud and really thankful for them giving me a chance.
“It is very exciting. Not a lot of players get to come out and experience this so it is kind of like a dream come true,”
Gillespie admitted to being a little nervous and that impacted her level of play on Friday, the first day of the trials. She seemed to play with more confidence with each passing practice session.
“I like to say that basketball is basketball no matter where you play, so if you know how to play, this is going to come natural to you,” Gillespie said.
In Sunday’s first session she teamed up with UConn commit Katie Lou Samuelson and Stanford commit Anna Wilson as part of her group in 5-on-5 full-court scrimmages. In one sequence, she made a nice catch of a bullet pass from Wilson and kicked the ball out to Samuelson for a 3-pointer. The next time down she made a hook shot in the lane.
“I am just trying to get better every time I step on the floor,” Gillespie said. “I want to show them that whatever you need I am going to try to do it, trying not to let the fatigue setting in but it is setting in. If they want me to box out, I will box out. If they want me to defend, I will defend. I am not going to come out and try to score 40, so that is my mission.”
Capital Prep was one of 13 high schools to have more than one player at the U-17 trials. Gillespie and Elmore combined for 41 points as Capital Prep defeated Weaver 69-53 in the 2014 CIAC Class L title game. With this USA Basketball experience under their belts, imagine how much better the Trailblazers will be than the team which went undefeated last season.
“Me and Kiah have been playing together for a long time, and she is playing now and I am happy to watch her play and compete just as she did for me,” Elmore said. “This is going to be a lot of help when we get back to school and the season starts. We will be able to push each other even more because we know what we have been through.”
Laszewski had to be considered one of the true revelations of the first two days of the trials.
She was almost afraid to look at the numbers of players being kept around when the two cuts were made on Saturday.
“You come up, they post a list and everybody swarms,” Laszewski said. “I am sitting there and I wait until everybody leaves to save the embarrassment. I have to triple check to make sure my number is there and have my dad take a picture ‘are you sure my number is there?’”
Despite averaging 14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while lead Avon to the Class S quarterfinals as a sophomore, Laszewski was probably the least known of the three Connecticut kids at the trials.
She was able to hold her own going against the nation’s best players including Lauren Cox, considered by some to be the best player in the Class of 2016.
“It is amazing to play against people this good,” Laszewski said, “Just to be able to play against her and see what she does to be the No. 1 (recruit), try to take what she does, work on it and bring it back. She is amazing.”
Laszewski, like Elmore, came to the trials after filing an application with USA Basketball. She was a beneficiary of this process being utilized for the first time in the U-17 trials.
“I was sick. I was laying in bed and my dad came in and he said ‘Abby, oh my gosh you got into it,’” Laszewski said. “I didn’t believe him, I said ‘seriously?’ It was really exciting and awesome. I was so excited.”
So how long did it take for Laszewski to shake off the nervousness and just start to play?
“A couple of shots,” Laszewski said. “You get here, you see everybody, you freak out. Once you start shooting and say ‘whatever, I will play my game and whatever happens, happens.’”
What happened is Laszewski opened up more than a few eyes. It helped that she was receptive to the suggestions from the U-17 coaching staff and court coaches running the trials.
“They have been giving me tips on my shot, what to do when I am posting up, little adjustments like footwork,” Laszewski said.
Even though she did not make the team, she will return to Avon as a better player and one on the radar of more college programs than when she headed to the trials.
“She is making the most of it,” said her father Jay Laszewski. “I think she has opened her own eyes a little bit with how well she is doing and the kind of player she can be.
“She hasn’t played that long. She has only really been in AAU for two years so she has a lot to learn. Her coaches like that because she is not set in her ways and she is open to the coaching, but she has come a long way. I don’t think Abby would have ever imagined herself ever being on the same floor with those kind of girls, but it is a super high level. It is fun to watch and she belongs out there. She looks good, and she soon will come to the realization when she goes back that it was fun. We came here with the idea of working hard and have fun, but I am sure she will go back and think ‘wow, I guess I will be OK.’ It has been a lot of fun to watch her grow mentally.”