Pregnant boys coach teaches more than hoops

AKRON, Ohio — There are 801 boys varsity basketball head coaches whose teams began 2012-13 Ohio High School Athletic Association play last weekend. 
They are all teaching, nurturing and pushing their players. To at least some degree, all 801 of them are chasing one of the four state championships the OHSAA will award in late March. 
Only one of them is carrying. 
Stacie Horton-Carter drinks a lot of water and sleeps “very well” at night, but she’s almost eight months pregnant with a boy who’s set to meet around 30 big brothers sometime after the first of the year.
Mom is the basketball coach at Akron North High School, a job that doesn’t have a very good pay-to-hours worked ratio and requires more patience and vision than installing plays or making halftime adjustments.
North’s varsity team went 1-20 last season, finishing last in the seven-team Akron City Series.
Three times since practice officially started on Nov. 9, Horton-Carter has dealt with a player telling her he wasn’t sure he had somewhere to sleep that night. 
“The challenge is to make these kids believe in themselves,” said Horton-Carter, an Akron native who still lives within the city limits. “It’s about self-worth. As sad as it is to say, these kids think they’re inferior. They’ve seen and experienced things to make them think that.
“They have poor self-concepts. They all want to act like the baddest player, be the hero. They want to dunk and scream. Even the ones that can do it, I really feel like inside, they feel inferior. They shouldn’t think that.”
Of those 801 head coaches of boys teams in Ohio, three are female and all three in their first seasons of their respective jobs. Horton-Carter’s situation ranks among the most challenging, not just among her female or Northeast Ohio counterparts, but anywhere. 

North is a struggling school in a struggling school district. Before Akron Public middle and high schools started offering free lunches to all students this school year, 54 percent of the students automatically qualified for it, and up to 70 percent could have. Horton-Carter guesses that only “two or three” players in the North program live at home with both their mother and father, and several live with a sibling or other family member. 
Horton-Carter’s job is one that brings both a lesson and an adventure every day. 
It’s a job she gave up her other job to get. 
Previously Horton-Carter was an intervention specialist at North who worked for the last three years with ninth-graders in a program for kids identified as being at risk of not graduating. Howevere, that was an hourly, non-union position. Akron Public Schools, following federal guidelines, don’t allow hourly employees to surpass 40 hours per week. 
After Horton-Carter organized open gyms last spring, entered teams representing North in a summer league and emerged as the top candidate through the mandatory interview process, she became what Akron City Schools director of interscholastic athletics Joseph Howard called “a pretty easy choice.”
Then, she had to choose between her job and a new challenge that played to her passion. 
“When that passion is real,” Horton-Carter said, “I think you chase it.”

She went with a no-cut policy when Nov. 9 came, and she started with 45 players among the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams on the first day of practice. That was down to 37 by the first game. A few cuts could be coming, Horton-Carter said, depending on attitude and academic performance. With the exception of one injury, the players who already left “couldn’t handle the checks and balances,” she said. 
Senior Damon Bowman, who played in nine games for North last season after family issues brought him to Akron from Detroit, said Horton-Carter has instilled discipline guidelines that include weekly grade checks, wearing ties to school on the days of home games and a policy that says “if you even think about being late for practice, you might as well start running.” 
She introduced — and stressed — words like accountability and responsibility, and fellow senior Marcus Robbins said those things have already created an excitement level for City Series play. 
“It might be every week she’s checking your grades,” Robbins said. “But it feels like every day. It’s a good thing. Some guys need that.”
Every day is different, Horton-Carter said, because so many of her players have little stability in their lives. 
“Sometimes, they come to school to eat” — Akron Public Schools also offer free breakfast — “and then there are other issues going on,” she said. Some players hold jobs “at corner stores or Dairy Queen — the bottom line is they have to make money.”
That’s why practices are mandatory — with an asterisk. That’s why the time spent in the gym, with those four basketballs she purchased herself bouncing around, is so precious. 
“When you get them here and get them going,” she said. “They don’t want to leave.”
In 12 years at the school and four as athletic director, Carrie Stewart has developed an appreciation for the battles her school’s coaches and players fight. She said she knew she’d found the right coach in Horton-Carter last month when a basketball player who’d given trouble to a particular teacher immediately vowed to stop when Stewart threatened to remove him from the basketball team. 
He did stop.
“Absolutely no qualms about hiring a woman or someone without a bunch of experience,” Stewart said. “She’s the right person for the job.”

Said Howard: “I don’t care it was a man or a woman or someone who’s green with purple polka dots. Stacie wants this job and wants to succeed. We couldn’t ask for much more.”

Between the first and second quarters in the Dec. 1 season opener at Manchester, the North players and their new coach first discussed defensive matchups and why they weren’t getting into offensive sets. When that was over, Horton-Carter didn’t bring out a dry-erase clipboard — maybe because she doesn’t have one — but instead appealed to the players’ confidence.
“We’re here, guys,” she said. “No one can take this away from you. Let’s play like we belong.”
A 14-point halftime deficit became a 67-46 loss, but the new coach came away feeling her team was a little closer to “breaking those old habits that lead to those old, bad results.” Another Akron City Series coach scouting North’s opener declared to a friend during the first quarter that “North is already tons better than last year.”
The Vikings look better, and not just because they’ll be wearing ties before weekday games. A local church spearheaded the efforts to buy new uniforms and shoes for the varsity; the shoes are being shipped and aren’t yet in. The uniforms didn’t arrive until late last week, just one day before the first game and too late to get numbers to Manchester for the game program. The JV team is wearing the old varsity uniforms.
“Numbers peeling and all,” Horton-Carter said, citing that there have been no complaints. 
“There’s a sense of pride just getting the uniform for these kids,” she said. “The uniforms aren’t stitched, they’re not top-quality, but they’re good. And it means something to every one of these kids to put that uniform on.
“We’re looking to put out productive young men who have had a change of heart, a change in their discipline level, who can look back on this experience and know they were valued and know that they can do something in life.” 
Back when she was Stacie Horton, she was a basketball junkie who came out of Buchtel High School with a scholarship to play at Ohio State. That didn’t work out, and it didn’t work again when she came home with hopes of playing at the University of Akron. 
At 19, she had Shaia Horton — now a freshman playing college basketball herself at Jefferson Community College in Missouri — and for a while, Stacie’s only tie to basketball came from playing in recreation leagues. She started coaching her daughter’s team before Shaia entered middle school. She coached Shaia’s Cleveland-based AAU teams over the ensuing several years, often with success. 
She’d never coached boys before the challenge to look out for this group’s best interest last spring became her job. 
“Girls are emotional, heart on their sleeves, and you don’t have to guess how they’re feeling,” she said. “The boys keep things inside. I have to prod and push them. I can’t guess their emotions. When they’re going through something, they have to tell me.
“Add in the fact that I’m pregnant, and we’re all one big ball of emotion some days.”
She laughed. There are times she has to laugh. 
She’s learning, too. 
That first game at Manchester wasn’t just about finding about who knows the plays or who shrugs his shoulders after a bad play, but about what’s driving her players. Manchester is a suburban school with strong athletic traditions, well-run youth programs and community-wide pride in the school’s athletic success. Essentially, it’s everything North isn’t. 
Upon entering the school, the North players were drawn to a plastic Panther, maybe two feet long, a one-time art project that now sits in a cage in the school’s main lobby. 
“It stands for Panther pride, and our kids aren’t lost on that,” Horton-Carter said. “They know what’s going on, and I’m not sure I realized that until I saw them all gathered around that Panther. They were enamored by it.
“I’m trying to get them to the locker room, and they wanted to take pictures with the (plastic) Panther.”
She said the players were also “a little in awe” of the concession stand run out of Manchester’s cafeteria during games.
“At our home games, the concession stand is a table,” she said. 
When the JV game ended, Manchester’s team took the floor wearing full warm-up suits, with a pep band playing and a choreographed student section cheering along. The first North player out of the cheerleader’s tunnel and onto the floor for the season opener was wearing a gray T-shirt with another school’s logo. Another wore a gold North High shirt turned inside-out. There are no warm-ups and no practice jerseys because there is no budget.
The athletic departments for Akron Public Schools are self-sufficient. Howard said budget cuts last spring left him “unable to offer any program anything,” including the six basketballs the district used to purchase for each program at the beginning of each season. 
Horton-Carter said the paperwork has been done to establish and grow a basketball booster club, and she does expect to have more resources available later this season and into next. Making that happen is a grassroots effort.  
Her assistant coach, Danyelle Love, is a North alum and was a star basketball player in the 1990s for the North Lady Vikings. She still knows people throughout the community, from business owners to longtime residents to parents of current and possibly future players.  This Friday night is the team’s first home game, and people at various levels and in various capacities with the school have put on the full-court press to get as many students and alumni as possible. 
Every $5 ticket counts. 
“We’re struggling financially,” Horton-Carter said. “We’re making sure the kids have an appreciation for every ounce of work and every battle we take on. There are a lot of them.”
What keeps her going is what happened before the first ball was tipped last Saturday night, during the 25-minute bus ride to Manchester, when Horton-Carter got a text message from one of her players. 
“I thought it was a little strange because he was on the bus, probably 10 seats behind me,” she said. “But I opened it up and it said, ‘I really appreciate everything you’ve done. I love you like a mom. I’m gonna work hard for you, I promise.’
“I wrote back and said, ‘I love you, too. Please understand this is for you. This is the beginning.’ We want them to know people care.”
There are daily hurdles, from giving rides and checking grades to making sure the players are eating and sleeping. There are teams around the City Series already counting their two games vs. North as wins based on recent history. 
At the front of the bus, there’s a pregnant coach who dreams realistically, operates within some pretty tight boundaries and — when she’s not drinking bottled water by the case — tries to mix the harsh realities with the opportunities a new start brings. In a lot of ways, there’s nowhere for North High Basketball to go but up. Even a 21-point loss in the first game can be a positive starting point. 
“We’re not going to win any national championships,” Horton-Carter said. “Not in the first year.”