Home-schoolers take to the court|[01/28/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 28, 2008

It looks like any other high school basketball practice.

Players dribble around chairs, run sprints and scrimmage. They shoot, they dribble, they pass. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, until the coach needs to summon a couple of his players. He wanders over to a door on the side of the court, and pulls them out of class.

It’s one of the few traditional ones they’ve been in all day.

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This practice belongs to the Vicksburg Warriors, Warren County’s newest basketball team. Made up entirely of home-schooled children, they have a dozen players on the roster and are about to wrap up their inaugural season in the first Mississippi Home School Tournament Saturday in Jackson.

“For going from zero to scratch, we haven’t done too bad,” coach Larry Storey said. “We have some good outside shooters. That’s where we’ve been getting most of our points.”

The team was the brainchild of Storey, who has home-schooled six of his seven of his children over the last 10 years. A Vicksburg native, Storey was living in Virginia when his son Byron got involved with a team of home-schoolers. When the family moved back to Vicksburg in 2006, a group of home-school families were interested in starting some sort of organized sport.

Home-school families choose to teach their children at home, rather than send them to public or private schools. Parents who opt for home schooling believe the less-structured, more intimate teaching environment allows their children to better grasp material. Some groups of home school families have traditional classes for certain subjects — like the small Latin class Storey pulled his players out of — but the usual setting is a one-on-one or family environment.

“Really, the only difference is it’s like having a private tutor,” said Tim Dowell, a 17-year-old forward on the basketball team.

While home schooling has its benefits, one of its downsides is a lack of natural social interaction with other kids. And that’s where the Warriors come in. Having an organized sport, especially a demanding one like basketball, provides a good outlet for players and a chance for home-school families to interact, Storey said.

“When they’re outside of home school, they cling together as friends,” Storey said. “It gives them physical exercise and an ability to intermingle with one another. It fosters good character.”

Once the parents in the Vicksburg Christian Home-school Educators — the area’s home-school parents’ group — decided to organize some sort of team, Storey took the reins. He had played high school ball and coached youth teams, and had a passion for the sport. He offered to organize and coach the team.

Pulling it together was a long process, though. The first informal meeting was in August 2006, and a number of organizational meetings followed. The team finally held its first practice in October 2007 and played its first game in November.

“Everything was grassroots on our side,” he said. “It was a lot of time, a lot of hours on the phone, and a lot of rejection.”

Finding opponents may have been the toughest part of the whole process, Storey said. While some states have a large number of home-school teams in basketball, baseball and even football — Alabama has 11 basketball teams; Texas has almost 50 — Mississippi barely had any.

Groups in Jackson and Hattiesburg have had teams for several years, but there was no organization on a state level. With the addition of the Warriors, there were enough teams to form the foundation of a true Mississippi league. Storey said both Jackson and Hattiesburg are planning to add another team next fall, and groups in Tupelo and Copiah County are also forming teams. Next season, if all goes as planned, there will be five to seven teams in the state.

The Warriors played seven games this season against the Hattiesburg and Jackson teams, as well as one against Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, and posted a 2-5 record.

“Jackson can have three squads. Hattiesburg can have two squads. I’ve already had some other people interested because this is an organized sport,” Larry Storey said.

Storey’s optimism for the future of the program goes beyond state boundaries. While in Virginia, he watched several home-school teams that were able to compete against the state’s largest public high schools. With only about 60 high school age students to draw players from, it’s doubtful the Vicksburg program could ever compete against the Laniers and Provines of the world. In a few years, though, Storey is hopeful it can hold its own against smaller teams from the Mississippi Private School Association.

He’s also cast an eye toward a bigger goal. Each year, Home School Sportsnet Inc., a loosely-affiliated network of home-school organizations throughout the country, holds a national tournament at Liberty University in Virginia. Two dozen teams are entered in this year’s tournament in March. In a few years, Storey believes the Warriors can be good enough to try their luck there.

“That’ll be awesome,” said Jonathan Storey, the coach’s 15-year-old son and one of his players. “When we were in Virginia there were a few teams that went to it and they were really, really good. Hopefully we can do that, too.”

Larry Storey has no illusions that his team is at that level yet. Only about half of his players had any basketball experience before this season, and most of that came in YMCA or other youth leagues. He’s seen enough progress in the last three months to be encouraged, though, and is willing to be patient.

“The sport and the fan base will continue to grow. We think in two more years we’ll be good enough to go to the national tournament,” he said. “We feel we want to compete with the best. And as we grow, if we can compete with the larger schools, we would love that opportunity.”