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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

AMES, Iowa — Back on Grounds, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, their fellow students donned shorts and basked in sunshine.

Here in this Midwest college town, UVa basketball players walked out out of the team hotel and into snow flurries that blew directly into their faces.

“Balmy,” said Paul Murata, Virginia’s athletic trainer for women’s hoops.

It was warm and dry inside the Boys and Girls Club of Story County, however, and that’s where the Wahoos, after a short bus ride, spent more than an hour Friday afternoon, talking to and shooting hoops with about 30 kids.

A year ago, when the NCAA selection committee sent the Cavaliers to Los Angeles, Debbie Ryan and her players stopped by a Boys and Girls Club in that city.

The visit went well for all parties, and so when the ‘Hoos learned Monday night they were headed to Ames, director of operations Erin Batth called Geff Gescheidler, executive director of the local Boys and Girls Club.

“When we go on one of these trips,” Ryan said, “we try to do something, if we have time, for the community we’re in.

“I think [the UVa players] just really enjoy kids, and anything we can do to help kids understand how to better their lives is good.”

Just inside the club’s entrance, a poster signed by club members greeted the ‘Hoos:

Good Luck In The NCAA Tournament

In the gym, Ryan’s players took turns introducing themselves to a rapt audience whose members’ grades ranged from the first through the ninth. Each player also gave her major, and Batth, who played at Clemson, stressed to the boys and girls the importance of education.

“There will be no sports if you don’t go to class,” Batth said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Natalie Fitzgerald, the team’s academic advisor, delivered the same message, one the boys and girls hear often at the club. They work on their homework there after school every day.

“We’re stressing academics to the kids all the time,” Gescheidler said. “It’s great for them to hear it from someone who’s doing it. A lot of these kids have dreams of being college athletes, and we look at [the Cavaliers] as role models.”

All talk and no play is no fun, of course, and Ryan didn’t make the kids wait too long.

“You guys want to play some ball?” she asked after Fitzgerald’s remarks, and the response was unanimous.

“Yes!”

The players split up, with two at each of the six baskets, along with about five kids. Spirited games of knockouts followed.

Ryan, who’s nearing the end of her 33rd season as UVa’s coach, wasn’t content to observe. She matched freshman Lexie Gerson shot for shot until a fifth-grade boy named Kahli knocked Ryan out.

At the other end, ACC player of the year Monica Wright and sophomore guard Ariana Moorer competed against older kids.

Wright is usually the best player on the court. Which means she won her game, right?

“No,” Wright said, shaking her head. “Ari knocked me out, and then she got knocked out right after me.”

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Wright said, she was a regular at the Hylton Boys and Girls Club, and she remembers when local high school players spoke there.

“I know it used to make a big impression on me,” Wright said.

After a group photo, the ‘Hoos headed back to the team hotel, where study hall awaited them. The club’s boys and girls got more than words of advice. Each received a Virginia Basketball T-shirt.

Fifth-seeded UVa meets No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay in a first-round game Sunday night at Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum. Who knows? The Cavaliers may have picked up a few new fans Friday afternoon.

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