When you watch the Whittier Regional High girls basketball team, one player stands out.
At more than 6 feet tall and with long, flowing dreadlocks, freshman Sammie Vonleh catches your eye immediately. Vonleh is by far the tallest girl on the court in almost every game she plays. While her talent is still raw, coach Kevin Bradley can see the untapped potential she has.
"She's still learning the ball game," Bradley said. "She's already come a real long way this season."
The rise has been quick for the 6- foot, 4 inch Vonleh, who said she did not even expect to make the varsity squad as a freshman. She was used sparingly in the first half of the season. She would come off the bench, and play in games where the outcome was not in doubt. Bradley felt this was a good method to get Vonleh accustomed to the game.
Despite her size, Vonleh has been playing basketball for just three years. She is still hesitant about where she is supposed to be positioned and does not have complete basketball instincts quite yet.
"We're trying to get her out of her shyness," Bradley said. "If freshmen can give you any time (in games), it's a bonus and she's already provided that."
In a game at the midpoint of the season, Vonleh played the most minutes she had all year and exploded for 27 points on Jan. 18 during a win against Greater Lawrence. She followed that performance up two days later with 17 points in just three quarters against Malden Catholic.
"She was a lot more confident in those games," Bradley said. "She's been learning about where to position her body for the shot so she can grab those offensive rebounds for putbacks. The more she realizes she's capable of something, the more she steps up."
"I've definitely improved a lot," Vonleh said. "I'm finding it easier to get open because I know where to be."
She has been inconsistent since her two big games, but there is still the possibility that Vonleh has the potential to be a big difference maker in both the upcoming state vocational tournament and the MIAA tournament, which will begin next week. Just the presence of Vonleh inside can alter opponents' game plans and force teams to shoot from the perimeter instead of driving against a big body such as Vonleh's.
Not only is Vonleh more confident in her own game, she is blending in with her teammates as well. Bradley said she and her teammates have engaged in good-natured ribbing, something that is always a sign of a team that is more comfortable with each other.
In addition to her coaches and teammates, Vonleh has another person who is well qualified to give her some pointers. Her brother Noah has the potential to be one of the best players ever to come out of Haverhill. Noah is a sophomore at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire and is ranked as the fourth best basketball prospect in the nation by ESPNU for the class of 2014.
Despite her brother's talents, Vonleh does not feel the pressure to be as successful and have as much hype as he does.
"I just want to play for fun," she said. "I don't worry about being as good as him or living up to what he's done."
"They are each their own person," Bradley said. "Their mother never puts any pressure on them to do anything basketball. If we had put a lot of pressure on Sammie, maybe she might have folded, but we have kept a positive approach with her."
This is the first year that Noah hasn't lived at home after he transferred from Haverhill High after the last school year. Despite him being away from home, Sammie still talks to him a few times a week and she called Noah almost immediately after her 27-point breakout performance. Noah was able to attend one of her games last week, and Sammie scored 10 points in front of her brother.
When Noah is home, he gives Sammie tips about how to improve her game as the two play similar positions on the court. Sammie said Noah focuses on teaching her ball handling and how to go up for rebounds.
Sammie Vonleh is learning the ropes this season as a freshman and will be counted on to play a bigger role next season when four key seniors graduate from Whittier. Bradley hopes that being on a talented varsity squad this season will translate into her being a better player in the future.
"She's part of a great freshman nucleus that we have," Bradley said. "She's going to be a big part of the Whittier program moving forward."
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