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FGCU clinic teaches athletic, academic feat

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Jessica Cattani teaches Rebekah Tigertail, 5, how to box out Sept. 12 during FGCU’s clinic on the Big Cypress Reservation.
Florida Gulf Coast University’s Jessica Cattani teaches Rebekah Tigertail, 5, how to box out Sept. 12 during FGCU’s clinic on the Big Cypress Reservation.

BIG CYPRESS — While they waited for their pasta lunches to arrive, about 25 youngsters used free time after a private basketball clinic to quiz members of the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) women’s basketball team. Questions ranged from what positions the women play on the court and what majors they study in the classroom to whether they arrived in Big Cypress in a limo.

For the record, the Eagles didn’t arrive at Herman L. Osceola Gymnasium in a limousine Sept. 12, but the reigning Atlantic Sun Conference champions from Fort Myers did bring a wealth of knowledge about becoming a college basketball player and balancing academics with athletics. Kids learned that GPAs are more important than PPGs.

“Our players are on scholarship, but to get that scholarship they had to do well in high school academically just be eligible by NCAA standards for a scholarship, and then once they arrive on campus, they have to do well in their coursework just to keep their scholarship,” said FGCU head coach Karl Smesko, who guided the squad to a 31-3 record and NCAA Tournament appearance last season.

A year ago, the FGCU men’s basketball team hosted a clinic at Big Cypress. Earlier this year, coaches from the Eagles’ volleyball and golf teams provided instruction on the reservation. This time it was the women’s turn to run basketball drills as Smesko, associate head coach Chelsea Dermyer and five players offered pointers for more than two hours to a mixture of high schoolers and younger kids.

Haley Laughter, a redshirt sophomore forward, said clinics played a big part in her early development as a basketball player in Asheville, North Carolina, where she used to tag along to gyms with her older brother.

“That’s how I got into basketball, by going to clinics like this and learning from older people who love the game, too,” she said.

Laughter said her parents always pushed her to achieve good grades in high school, which proved beneficial when it came time to select a college.

“A lot of people think, ‘You’re really good at basketball, you’re going to get a scholarship,’ but it has a lot to do with grades,” Laughter said.

In addition to playing basketball, Laughter is dribbling two majors – biology and psychology – as she prepares for life after hoops. She’s on track to graduate in two years and plans to attend dentistry school.

Maintaining good grades and athletic responsibilities – including practices, games and travel – can be overwhelming at times, Laughter said, but she manages.

“You have your good days and bad days,” she said, “but we’re all in the same boat; we’re all doing it together, so if you have a bad day, you always have a teammate picking you up.”

If someday she becomes Dr. Laughter, it won’t be the first time an FGCU player tackles the medical profession. Smesko said former player Ashley Haegele is a doctor and former player Kelsey Jacobson is in medical school.

“When they’ve been able to balance the athletics commitment and the academic commitment well enough that they can get into med school and get through it and work in their chosen profession, it makes you feel good as a coach,” Smesko said.

Smesko said she likes players who want to excel both on the court and in the classroom.

“When you see a really good player, you’re always extra excited when you see that they’re responsible enough to really take their studies seriously and that the academic portion is really important to them and they’re thinking about a future after college,” he said.

Before Kaneisha Atwater arrived at FGCU and became one of the conference’s top players, she admittedly didn’t take academics seriously. As a freshman at Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Atwater neglected her schoolwork and eventually paid a price.

“Honestly, I really just focused on sports,” she said.

Sitting out nearly her entire sophomore season at Westwood because of poor grades forced Atwater to adjust her priorities and focus on education.

“That was a turning point for me. It made me realize that without studies, there’s no basketball,” Atwater said. “The fact I couldn’t get out there and help my team, it hurt me to see them suffer from my bad decisions.”

Atwater boosted her GPA to get back on the Westwood team for her final two years before she embarked on what has become a standout career for the Eagles.

Last season she recorded a double-double in the conference championship game, scored a game-high 26 points in an NCAA Tournament win against Oklahoma State and earned a spot on the Atlantic Sun’s All-Conference First Team. All the while, Atwater, who has a 3-year-old son, has stayed on track to earn a criminal justice degree this spring.

“Now being here at FGCU, the coaches force us to get above average,” she said. “We don’t settle for average. Here, it’s been a big change for me and I definitely think it’s helped me out a lot. I study more. I’ll be graduating with over a 3.0 GPA.”

In addition to Atwater, FGCU returns a good chunk of its roster from last season, which means the five players who visited the Big Cypress Reservation and the rest of their Eagles teammates are expected to soar again.

“There are high expectations this year for sure,” said Smesko, whose team opens Nov. 13 at North Carolina A&T. “We finished in the top 25 in the nation last year. Only one starter graduated, so we have a nice nucleus of players returning. We play an extraordinary difficult schedule, but we feel we have the type of team that can handle that type of competition.”

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Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at kevinjohnson@semtribe.com.
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