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|Major tragedy almost led to Shalethia Stringfield giving up basketball.|
Coming up on a year ago, back before Shalethia Stringfield emerged as a top prospect at her position as well as a leader of one of the nation's top high-school girls' basketball teams, she wasn't even sure she wanted to keep playing the sport that she and her father dreamed would take her places.
These days, Stringfield, a junior guard, is going a lot of places. She committed to South Florida on Thursday and criss-crosses the country with the trail-blazing Potter's House Christian Academy (Jacksonville, Fla.), a team that plays almost all of its games on the road. She says there still are difficult times, but she remains engaged and determined about her basketball. Her father believed in her, she says, and she believes in herself.
On March 6, 2009, while at the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament in Dayton, Tenn., Stringfield's father, Darrell Lamar Stringfield, died. He had been shot nearly five months earlier, on Oct. 22, 2008, and the then-15-year-old spent many days visiting him in the hospital as he went through surgeries and recovery.
|Shalethia Stringfield is cat-quick with the ball in her hands.|
Stringfield, then a sophomore at Potter's House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.), didn't know if she would keep playing, her mind drifting to thoughts of her dad when she finally did return to the court.
"Every time I played, I thought about it and thought I didn't want to play anymore," Stringfield said. "But my friends and family kept pushing me to keep at it and to keep my trust in God. I'm pursuing his dream for me to still succeed and don't give up."
In the time immediate after the shooting, the basketball season went on and Stringfield spent her time playing and visiting her dad, reluctantly leaving him in early March for the trip to Dayton.
"There was a feeling that we were sure he was going to come out and we were just trusting in God," Brittany Rountree said. "We tried to keep a good mindset."
The shooting happened late in the night as Darrell Stringfield and some friends were out in the parking lot of the Grand Oaks Apartments in Jacksonville. His wife and son, Shalethia's older brother, went to the hospital right away, then pulled Shalethia out of class the next morning to tell her of the incident, with her coach bringing her to the hospital to see her father. As his condition stabilized a bit, his daughter was a constant by his side, visiting when she could, sometimes joined by teammates and coaches.
"Whenever I could visit, I talked to him, hugged him, watched TV," Stringfield said. "We watched a lot of football. He coached football and what he mostly liked to do in his spare time was go fishing."
As time progressed, he lost a leg and a hand due to infections he developed while in the hospital. There were good days and bad days, but there was progress. Basketball season wound to a close in March and Stringfield was still in the hospital, but no worse than he had been. So when the time came for Potter's House to head to the NACA Championships, the Lions packed up and hit the road.
"Everything in me told us not to go, but we went anyway," coach Tony Bannister said. "That was the one time in any tournament that God really spoke to me and said don't go. Antoinette was sick, Brittany had hurt her knee, all the things were stacked against us. Shalethia's dad was in and out, from one point looking like he was going to be OK to they're not sure."
The Lions lost their first game 83-35 to Riverdale Baptist and then lost to Oak Hill 47-38 Friday morning.
"That Friday, we probably played the worst we'd ever played in any tournament," Bannister said.
After that game, Bannister got the call -- Darrell Stringfield had died. So Bannister and his traveling crew packed the girls back into the van, made all the girls turn off their cell phones and started the nine-hour return to Jacksonville. When they arrived late in the night, they dropped Shalethia Stringfield off with her family and told the rest of the team what had happened.
|Shalethia Stringfield is part of a quartet of young guards leading Potter's House Christian Academy.|
The team rallied around their teammate and at the funeral the following Wednesday, the team's RV was parked out front. After an emotional service, the Lions piled into the RV and set off toward Erie, Pa., and the National Christian School Athletic Association tournament, dedicating it to Stringfield, who chose not to make the trip, and her father.
After he died, Stringfield thought of her father every time she took the court. She couldn't focus on basketball and thought she was losing her passion for it. She considered giving up the sport, but her teammates and family members had other ideas.
"(Stringfield) is a fighter," teammate Loliya Briggs said. "We had no choice but to keep encouraging her. When one person hurts, we all hurt."
Her teammates and closest friends gave her shoulders to cry on, lent their ears to let her talk about her dad and reminded her how much of him they see in her every day.
"She's a really calm person and keeps a lot of things inside," said Antoinette Bannister, who has been Stringfield's best friend since the girls were eight. "But I know she thinks about him a lot. We talk about him."
Stringfield returned to the court in the spring and played with the Jacksonville Lady Rams during the summer, sticking with her now year-round teammates. She shares moments with her brother and her mom, remembering her father and his love of fishing and football, but when she is on the court, the 5-foot-7 guard is focused and determined and supporting her teammates just as they continue to support her.
"She's the heart and soul of this team," Tony Bannister said. "She's like their energizer bunny."
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