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New AAU team aims for Vegas Showcase

JBLM Youth Basketball

Hunter Wendland, 14, left, drives past Quinton Wagner, 12, during a full-court press drill during a JBLM Sonics AAU practice April 25 at the Child and Youth Services’ gymnasium on Lewis Main. JBLM PAO photo

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Joint Base Lewis-McChord has a new Amateur Athletic Union boys’ basketball team on base, the JBLM Sonics.

So far, the JBLM Sonics have competed in two AAU boys’ basketball tournaments, including last weekend’s Oregon Open Run Spring Showcase in Beaverton, Ore. It took a lot of effort to make an AAU team on JBLM a reality.

Last November, Sierra Cates was speaking with players and parents as a new basketball coach for Joint Base Lewis-McChord Child and Youth Services. She talked about her experience playing and coaching for youth teams in the Amateur Athletic Union.

After the meeting, Cates said a player told her about his AAU coach leaving the state and said he would be interested if she coached a team on JBLM. Cates credits that exchange for when the ball got rolling to form an official AAU basketball team on the installation.

“This team was three months in the making,” she said. “There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through.”

In addition to the paperwork the AAU requires, Cates also has to make the team a certified nonprofit organization through the Internal Revenue Service. That allowed the team to utilize the JBLM CYS gymnasium on Lewis Main for practices.

Although it was a lot of work, the effort shows how passionate Cates is for basketball. She played the sport through her childhood until she blew out her right knee at age 16. It was her second severe knee injury; the first came when she dislocated the same knee and sprained her MCL in the sixth grade.

“Either I would walk with a cane for the rest of my life or stop playing basketball,” Cates said.

Her passion led to coaching when she was 20. During her military service as an Army private first class, Cates coached for various school and youth teams between Germany and Washington state.

She’s already made an impact on the 12 JBLM Sonics players ranging in age from 12 to 15. Jack Zimmer, 15, played center for the boys’ team at Mann Middle School in Lakewood. In the brief time with the JBLM Sonics, he said he’s become more aggressive thanks to Cates.

“Our coach, she really pushes us to the limits, but it’s good for us,” Zimmer said.

While Cates is pushing the players, she’s also providing structure for them during the basketball offseason. The structure AAU basketball provided her as a youth was like a second family, she said.

It’s already making a difference for some of the players on the JBLM Sonics, including Hunter Wendland, 14. The Sonics are the first organized basketball team he has played for, and he’s one of the two team captains with Zimmer.

“I used to go outside and shoot, but this team really taught me all of the rules (and schemes),” Wendland said.

The JBLM Sonics had a good start in its first tournament at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines, Wash., on Easter weekend — finishing fifth of eight teams with a 1-2 record.

Cates also wants to get the team ready to qualify for the Las Vegas Showcase in July, where the top 92 teams in the nation are invited. Tournaments like last weekend in Oregon provide a chance for the team to see what skills it needs to work on next.

In terms of bigger picture, Cates said she wants to potentially branch out and offer more teams at different grade levels for boys and girls. She also wants to get players involved in more than just basketball.

“We plan on doing community outreach and getting involved in the community as well,” Cates said.

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