Stares follow stars on All-Ohio AAU team
Kelsey Mitchell notices the stares.
When she and her new AAU teammates, Makayla Waterman and Kathryn Westbeld, walk into a gym, heads turn. It's not all that surprising, considering their All-Ohio team features three of the top prospects in the nation.
"We get those looks like, 'We know who you are,'" said Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 point guard and the No. 4 prospect in the 2014 class. "We know teams are going to come at us, but we are going to come at them, too."
Waterman and Westbeld have been teammates since third grade, from travel ball all the way to Fairmont (Kettering, Ohio), the high school they led to a state title in March.
But it wasn't until after winning the state championship that they decided to join AAU forces with Mitchell, who already was established with All-Ohio.
"We've been playing against Kelsey since the sixth grade, and it's always been hard to stop her," Waterman said. "Being on her side is a lot more fun."
Stopping Waterman, the No. 30 prospect in the 2014 class, and Westbeld, the No. 31 prospect, isn't all that easy, either. They are a pair of 6-2 bookend forwards with versatile skills.
The duo shared MVP honors in their state final, and it was Waterman who had 24 points in a cathartic championship game. Fairmont (27-1) finally beat Twinsburg 52-48; it had lost the past two state finals to that same opponent.
Fairmont, which got 13 points from Westbeld, also ended Twinsburg's winning streak at 43 games and handed its rivals its first loss to an Ohio opponent in 74 games.
"That was the biggest relief of my life," Westbeld said. "It was an amazing weight lifted off my shoulders.
"My first three years [of high school] were so serious. We just had one goal -- win state. Now, for my last year, I can relax and have fun."
Mitchell wasn't as fortunate last season. Her Princeton team lost in the regional semifinals, 71-61 to Centerville (Ohio), despite Mitchell's 28 points.
But now that she has Waterman and Westbeld on her side, perhaps the three can win a national AAU championship in July at the Nike Nationals.
That's certainly the goal for All-Ohio Black 17-U Coach John "JB" Bethea, who likes the talent he has put together.
"We're ranked the No. 2 travel team in the country, and I can't disagree with that," said Bethea, whose team went 3-1 at last week's Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Hampton, Va. "With those three young ladies, we can go far.
"The Miami Heat has its Big Three, the Boston Celtics have their Big Three, and I'm happy with my Big Three."
The state of Ohio, in fact, has much more than a Big Three in the 2014 class. In addition to the All-Ohio trio, the state boasts three other players in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60. Alyssa Rice, a 6-3 post, is ranked 11th; Alexa Hart, a 6-3 post, is ranked 16th and Stasha Carey, a 6-3 forward, is ranked 54th.
But the burning question for many recruiters is whether All-Ohio's trio will stay together for college.
All three girls said they are open to the possibility, although each will make an individual decision -- no package deals.
Westbeld, who in August moved one block away from Waterman, said she has made unofficial visits to Ohio State, Connecticut, Michigan State, Dayton, Xavier, Notre Dame and Florida.
Most of those trips were made with Waterman.
"It's rare to find two girls who have played together since the third grade -- we have crazy chemistry," Westbeld said. "Staying together is definitely a possibility, but we have to make the best pick for ourselves first. If that happens to be the same [college], that would be awesome."
Waterman mentioned two colleges on her list of unofficial visits that differed from those of Westbeld: Kentucky and Purdue.
"I think [going to the same college] is an option," Waterman said. "But we are not trying to force anything. If it happens, it happens."
Because Mitchell's friendship with Waterman and Westbeld is still relatively new, the chances of her joining forces with either one of her new teammates seems less likely.
But Mitchell has made unofficial visits to three schools that are also on Waterman and Westbeld's lists: Xavier, Ohio State and Michigan State. Mitchell also has interest in Louisville and Cincinnati.
"We haven't talked about it really," Mitchell said when asked about staying together for college. "But it'd be nice."
Mitchell, though, did get a call from Waterman to say that she and Westbeld would be joining All-Ohio.
"I was excited," Mitchell said.
She wasn't the only one.
Bethea said Waterman is a double-double machine, similar to the numbers and style of the NBA power forward Zach Randolph.
Westbeld, meanwhile, reminds the coach of NBA forward Dirk Nowitzki in that she can play inside and out.
Mitchell said "it's a relief" to have Waterman and Westbeld on her side, and she doesn't feel that incorporating their talents into the offense will be difficult at all.
"Makayla is physically explosive," she said. "Kathryn can put the ball on the floor. It's a good thing to have them on my team because I don't have to do as much.
"As the point guard, I try not to be selfish. I feel like my teammates deserve the ball just as much as I do."