They have spent part of the summer wearing boxing gloves at Drake’s Gym and though their stories might not quite be what they seem, they sure have some bruising tales to tell:
• “I got hit in the mouth so hard my tooth got stuck in my lip,” said Alona Skipper. “It was bleeding. My whole mouth was kind of numb. That’s the hardest I’ve ever been hit.”
• “I got knocked down and ended up hitting my head pretty hard when I landed,” Emily Pacenta said.
• “The girl swung at me and hit me right in the face,” Lindsay Breslin said. “I got a black eye out of it. But I kept going. I try never to fall in pain. I’ve gotten more fat lips than I can count. I get bruised all the time. Getting hit in basketball is not new to me.”
That’s right, all those bloody-nose, black-eye stories happened while they were playing basketball. That’s because all those girls wearing boxing gloves are really members of the highly-touted Fairmont High School basketball team.
The Firebirds have made it to the Division I state tournament three years in a row. The past two years they’ve finished as runners-up, losing both times in the title game to Twinsburg.
This year Fairmont will return all its players from a team that went 24-4 last season. Over the summer, along with working on their dribbling and shooting, mostly while playing AAU ball, the girls have been trying to develop a knockout punch.
They figure it might be just what they need to finally send Twinsburg – or whoever else steps in front of them – down for the count come tournament time.
The idea to work out at Drake’s came from new Fairmont assistant coach Stephanie Bamberger, who was a Firebirds star herself before playing collegiately at Evansville.
“Stephanie works out here at the gym, so does her dad (noted hand surgeon Dr. Brent Bamberger) and the whole family,” Drake said. “She thought the players could get something out of this, too.”
Bamberger ran the idea by Firebirds veteran head coach Tim Cogan – “he’s a guy who can think outside the box,” said Drake – and in early July the Fairmont girls showed up at the blue-collar gym downtown for the first of several weekly sessions that just ended.
“Walking in the first time was kind of like coming into one of those old boxing movies,” said Alyssa Clement, a 5-foot-7 sophomore guard.
The dimly-lit gym is the old Gentile Produce company. It has pictures of iconic pugs like Rocky Marciano, Raging Bull Jake LaMotta and Muhammad Ali on the wall, stacks of black tires sitting near the elevated ring and 14 lumpy, taped-up heavy bags hanging like leaden sentries along one cement block side of the gym.
Initially, the whole Fairmont team showed up, but when summer basketball commitments pulled a few girls away, six players – Danielle Newell, Shea Morgan, Breslin, Skipper, Pacenta and Clement – showed up regularly.
Before their sessions they each wrapped their hands just like the other boxers there did. Soon they would be lifting tires up and down over their heads as they marched around the gym.
As they went through one series of exercises after another – their shirts soon stained with sweat in a fight club that has plenty of summer heat but no AC – they had Drake prompting them like a drill sergeant:
“Hands up ladies! … You’re fighters … You’re the FIGHTING Firebirds. Keep punching, the state title’s on the line.”
Once gloved, the girls pounded the heavy bags and then headed outside where they formed a circle on the cement pad along E. Fourth Street and then took turns peppering punches into the padded mitts Drake held at various angles in front of him.
Breslin, a 5-foot-5 sophomore guard, said she now has plenty of respect for boxers: “It looked hard before – just getting hit and stuff – but it was just as hard to practice. It’s pretty tiring. You need a lot of stamina, same as you do in basketball.”
And the girls got to compare the two sports side by side this summer.
While they trained in the gym, they also were deeply involved in various traveling AAU teams around the area.
Morgan, a 5-10 sophomore, plays for the Ohio Lady Attack. Clement and Newell , a 5-9 junior, are with the Dayton Lady HoopStars. Breslin and Skipper, a 5-9 senior, play for Dayton Metro.
A 5-foot-9 junior, Pacenta also plays on a club soccer team, limiting her AAU basketball involvement. While she did play as a guest for Dayton Metro, she also works three times a week with a personal hoops instructor, Andy Keating, a former Sinclair Community College and Morehead State basketball player.
Between the girls, their teams played in tournaments across the country this summer.
“The boxing will help our basketball,” Pacenta said. “I think it will make us mentally tougher and it made us kind of bond, too.” Then, with laugh, she qualified, “We bonded through pain.”
Skipper agreed: “This just helps you work on toughness. When you get tired you can fight through it. In a basketball game when your energy starts to drop in the fourth quarter you can draw on this.”
All of the players said they had wanted to spar with each other in the ring, but Drake didn’t allow that to happen. “We were all planning on who would fight who,” Newell said.
Morgan, for one, thinks she would have done okay in the ring. “I think I would be good,” she said with a bit of a laugh. “I think I could bring up that inner anger and really pack some punches.”
Pacenta didn’t doubt that: “I think some of the girls would really go at it and I wanted to see how everyone takes a blow. I think everybody could handle it pretty well. Everyone on our team has a high tolerance for pain. No one fakes injuries. And I think we’d have gotten better and better the more we learned.”
While they did learn some punches, they struggled a bit when it came to naming actual punchers.
Asked about boxers they’d heard of, Clement came up with Floyd Mayweather and Muhammad Ali. Breslin added Oscar De La Hoya and “Rocky.” Morgan finally remembered Mike Tyson and Skipper chimed in with Laila Ali.
As for Newell, she was stumped. “Ohhhh I know some, but I forget…I just can’t think of any boxers’ names right now.”
Turns out she just had to look around. There was Lindsay, Alyssa, Shea, Alona and Emily.
At least they’ve all had the black eyes, bloody noses and fat lips to look the part.