ROCKFORD (WREX) -
The Rockford Heat AAU girls basketball program has opened the door for current and future players to improve their skills for the present and beyond. The 13 Sports Authority offers an inside look at the Heat's humble beginnings and promising future. It began as a case of if you can't join them, make your own team and beat them yourself.
"It all started when my daughter was in fifth grade, me and my buddy had a couple of daughters try out for a basketball program and got cut," says Heat co-founder John Penney. "We both found ourselves with a couple of daughters that were sad and crying and we came together and said, hey, should we start a team?"
Penney and his good friend Darrin Golden, who now lives and works in Washington, DC, got their hands dirty to get the team off the ground.
"We tried to get gym space and money and anything we could get to help these kids get to where they needed to be," Golden says. "For a couple of guys that knew very little about this competitive basketball circuit, John and I just figured it out along the way. We put together some great opportunities for the kids."
Eight girls in this AAU program has grown ten fold. The Heat's travel schedule and playing up in competition has developed countless athletes, including a current crop of seniors who've signed college scholarships.
"It's definitely been instrumental, developing myself as a player because it is that extra time in the gym, that's all that you can do to get better is just keep working," says Hononegah senior Emily Gorsch, who will play college basketball at St. Xavier University.
"It's awesome, on your team you're playing with some of the best girls in the area, so even just practicing helps you a lot," according to Tiana Thomas of Hononegah, who will play her college hoops at Chicago State.
"Every tournament that we go to is in front of hundreds of colleges, we went to Washington and anywhere you could think of all around the states, and they made sure we got that exposure," says Boylan senior Kayla Steward, who has signed to play basketball at Eastern Illinois.
It's a precedent that's impacting the next group on the rise in Rockford. Penney says, "they paved the way for future basketball players now in future generations coming up through the ranks."
Don't just take his word for it. Just ask the original beneficiary and a future one.
"It's exciting because they're all really good players that are coming out of the Rockford area so it just makes us look better," says Jayla Penney, John's daughter. She's a Rockford Christian senior committed to Clarke University in Dubuque.
"That's my goal and I've been working at it since I was young," says Roscoe Middle School student Jordan King. "They've already had a lot of girls sign to go to collegiate levels and that's been one of my dreams so it's been great working with the Heat already."
It's an opportunity for the city's female athletes that's put the 815 area code on the map for years to come.