- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

RACINE, Wis. (AP) - The student-athletes at Julian Thomas Elementary School got the message pretty quickly: If your behavior in class is bad, you will not play in the next basketball game.

“We’ve had some bad behavior,” said Dennis Roushia, head coach and special education teacher for third and fourth grade. “If they don’t meet a certain number on their behavior sheet they can’t play . We’ve had to suspend a few people this year.”

After their best player got suspended for a game for bad behavior, the student-athletes knew it was serious, The Journal Times (https://bit.ly/2mxmvvn ) reported.

“If we miss practice, we miss a quarter (of the game),” said Ariana Green, a fifth-grader. “And if we’re bad in class, we miss a game.”

This is the second year Julian Thomas Elementary School, located at 930 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, has participated in a co-ed basketball team. The team lost to Roosevelt Elementary School 25-21 in the championship game last Saturday.

“We told them they’re all champions,” Roushia said. “They worked hard every single day.”

Roushia said this was a teaching moment for the students to learn how to overcome disappointments in life beyond the court.

“This season has been surreal,” he said. “I’ve never seen kids come so focused with a pure love for the game.” It was a surprise to many, and especially to Roushia, the first-time coach.

“I’ve never coached anything in my life . it was always something I wanted to get into,” Roushia said.

Last year the previous coach left to teach at Gifford Middle School, and Julian Thomas Principal Demetri Beekman looked to Roushia to keep the team going.

“He took it past my expectation as far as getting the parents involved, holding the students accountable for not only their academics but also their character and conduct,” Beekman said. “He meets with (the students) regularly to make sure they’re taking care of their academics and if there’s anything going on at home that he should be aware of.”

Beekman knows his way around a basketball court. As a graduate of Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, he went on to play for four years at Assumption College. There he became the all-time NCAA Division II assist leader with 1,044 assists, he scored more than 1,200 points, and was eventually selected for the Assumption Hall of Fame in 2013.

But it was Roushia’s ability to improve the behavior of the players that really impressed Beekman.

“That’s something I appreciate with Coach Roushia,” Beekman said. “If (the students) are not respecting the teachers, respecting any adults in the building, there’s consequences.”

The team is made up of fourth- and fifth-grade boys and girls.

Termaine Green, assistant coach and father of Ariana, said the students have a drive to win.

“I’ve been coaching them the last two years . the group of kids that we got here is a good group of kids,” Green said, noting that last year the team only lost three times. “A couple of kids that played last year are on the team this year, so they got that drive to be better.”

When it comes to playing both genders together, both Roushia and Green said it hasn’t been a problem.

“The girls play harder than the boys do, I’ll be honest,” Green said. “They play better defense. If I need somebody to go out there and get a stop, I’m going to put a girl out there.”

There are five girls on the team, Roushia said, and the boys have embraced them.

“We always have at least one girl on the floor at all times,” Roushia said. “I’ve had multiple quarters where we’ve played all of our girls.”

Fega Coronado, mother of fourth-grader Layla, wasn’t sure about her daughter playing basketball.

“I was iffy about it at first,” Coronado said. “My daughter loves it. A lot of boys took her under her their wing.”

Coronado also works in the school office and has seen how basketball has changed the students’ behavior.

“Before (this season) we would see quite a few in the office,” Coronado said, but now that’s not the case. “They work basketball. That’s why I’m sad the season is coming to an end.”

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Information from: The Journal Times, https://www.journaltimes.com

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