HOLD THAT TIGER: Memphis U’s Coach Builds With H-Town Ties

As mentioned in prior posts, I’ve dialed back signifigantly in my sports writing career due to work obligations. However, below is my latest feature for VYPE Magazine profiling Memphis head coach Josh Pastner. He was a phenomenal interview and is doing great things at Memphis.

HOLD THAT TIGER: Memphis U’s Coach Builds With H-Town Ties
by Austin Staton

Basketball is a way of life for the University of Memphis head coach Josh Pastner. At the age of 36, the Kingwood, Texas-native has spent time under the tutelage of perhaps the greatest minds in the game of basketball and has quickly become one of the elite young coaches at the collegiate level.

Josh Pastner

Josh Pastner grew up in Kingwood, Texas, and currently is the head basketball coach at the University of Memphis.

For Pastner, he has spent the last 18 seasons at the NCAA Division I level as a player, staff member, assistant coach and head coach while guiding teams to 12 conference championships during the span.

“I loved the game of basketball growing up and I recognized that my playing days would eventually come to an end,” says Pastner, who has posted a 106-34 record as the Memphis coach. “I knew the adrenaline rush of coaching and I really focused all of my energy towards that at a young age and was very fortunate to be at the University of Arizona and then at Memphis before becoming the school’s head coach.”

While learning the intricacies of the game under the likes of Lute Olson, John Calipari and Kingwood’s Royce Huseman, Pastner says that much of the credit to his coaching success came from his days as a coach for the Houston Hoops AAU program.

“Without that experience as an AAU coach, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn,” says Pastner, who has coached nearly 25 NBA Draft selections as an NCAA head or assistant coach and AAU head coach. “I was recruiting, making travel plans and managing personalities so the program is something that has helped shape me today.”

But for Pastner, his connection to Houston Hoops runs much deeper than the coaching experience – his father Hal founded the program while he was in grade school.

“It just evolved and it gave us a great connection and an opportunity to spend time together in different areas,” he says. “I’ve cherished that time and my father is my best friend. I’m able to bounce things off of him and he is able to give me a good perspective on things with both the game of basketball and life.”

As a young coach coming off back-to-back regular season conference championships and three-straight berths to the NCAA tournament, Pastner focuses his efforts on creating positive energy and a positive atmosphere for his players while setting the standard for a high-level of excellence.

The 2013-14 edition of his Memphis Tigers are one the three favorites in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference and boast a preseason Top 15 ranking in the Associated Press basketball poll.

Despite the success and expectations that Pastner has experienced, he’s still humble to his beginnings and recognizes his past when looking towards his future.

“Not in one second in my wildest dreams did I talk about being the head coach at Memphis … and it happened at 31 years of age,” he says. “When I got the job, I felt that my experiences coaching AAU basketball prepared me to be the head coach.

“That experience is because of Houston basketball. There are so many great coaches on the high school and AAU level and there are so many great players in Houston – it’s a hotbed and one of the great basketball cities in all of the United States of America.”

Breaking barriers, one obstacle at a time

Since beginning work at BP, I’ve been able to keep writing with VYPE Magazine on occasion. In the September issue of VYPE, I profiled a unique student-athlete from Cy-Creek. Payton Brown, a senior libero who is profoundly deaf. Her story is remarkable and she has quickly become my favorite student-athlete to profile. Read it below:

Breaking barriers, one obstacle at a time
by Austin Staton

Obstacles in life can either make or break an individual.

For Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown, she doesn’t see obstacles; she sees walls that are meant to be crashed through.

As a 5-foot-3 libero, Payton is just like any other student-athlete — she is a fierce competitor and brings an abundance of energy and excitement to the floor during matches. She is an honor roll student, a member of the National Honor Society and is an active member of Cy-Fair Christian Church.

But her story is atypical — she is profoundly deaf.

A LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT

Born to Chuck and Kristen Brown on Nov. 13, 1995, Payton was hospitalized just 10 days into her young life with a 101 degree fever that required immediate medical attention.

During a three-day stay in the hospital, Payton was given a spinal tap out of fear that she had contracted bacterial meningitis. One of the side effects was that the treatment involved antibiotics that were ototoxic and it caused damage to the hair cells inside Payton’s cochlea — the auditory portion of the inner ear — which would render her profoundly deaf.

 “I was numb,” recalls Payton’s father, Chuck, when recounting her diagnosis. “It was shocking because everything was fine when she went into the hospital, but she came out deaf.”

After consulting with The Center for Hearing and Speech (CHS), when Payton was still an infant, her parents began to explore the possibilities of teaching Payton verbal communication.

“We were told by the CHS that the hardest thing that Payton will have to do in her life is learn to speak,” says Kristen, who left her position as an advertising account manager for the Houston Chronicle in order to work with Payton as a defacto speech therapist. “I thought if that was a possibility, we’ll try it.”

At the age of 30 months and following in-depth research, it was decided that Payton would undergo life-changing surgery to implant an electronic device that would provide a sense of sound through a cochlear implant.

Following the surgery, Payton underwent daily speech therapy with a target to begin reading prior to Kindergarten — a goal in which she met without hesitation.

“Every accomplishment in her life, even the smallest thing, is so different from other children,” Kristen explains. “In Kindergarten they begin learning 35 sight words that they are required to know by Christmas — Payton said them by the first week of school. To me, when she did that, I knew that things were going to be ok.”

THE CHALLENGES

“It was definitely a challenge growing up,” says Payton. “People would make fun of me and tell me that I couldn’t hear. Some people can still be rude about my situation but I just look past it because it doesn’t matter. I definitely use that to fuel my motivation because I want to prove that deaf people can do the same things that hearing people can do.”

For Payton, her current circumstances have been defined by her courage when faced with difficult situations. In setting out to prove people wrong about the stereotypes contrived with the deaf culture, Payton began to compete competitively in national club volleyball in 2007, alongside her school program at Northland Christian.

Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown

Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown

After undergoing surgery to receive a second cochlear implant for her other ear immediately before her freshman year, Payton elected to transfer to Cy-Creek for her sophomore season — a better fit for her both academically and athletically.

“We were very lucky she transferred,” says Tami Combs, third-year volleyball head coach at Cy-Creek. “Initially it was a challenge because we were both trying to get a feel for each other and her teammates. As the the team has matured, she’s probably communicating with the team more so than anybody on that court and her leadership is outstanding.”

As a three-year varsity standout at both libero and defensive specialist, Payton has been tabbed Cy-Creek defensive MVP, a second team all-District performer, and has ranked as the district leader in digs per game and among the leaders in total digs per season. On the club front, she has been named the most valuable defensive player several times, including the last two years for her Houston Skyline Juniors team while garnering interests from several collegiate volleyball programs.  Payton knows that she will be playing volleyball in college and is looking forward to that challenge.

DONNING THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE

After being scouted at a regional qualifier for the Junior National Championships this past May, Payton was given the opportunity of a lifetime to represent the United States in the 2013 Deaflympics.

Originally founded as the International Silent Games in 1924, the 2013 Deaflympics featured 20 events and were held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in which Payton was the youngest representative on the US volleyball team.

“My first thought was that this couldn’t be real,” says Payton, who had been told by some that she was too young to compete. “I immediately called my dad to come over after being offered a spot on the team and we accepted right then and there.

“I’ve never felt any luckier or blessed to have this opportunity to go overseas and play international ball with some of the best deaf athletes in the world.”

Although she was overjoyed with the opportunity to play in Bulgaria, there was an adjustment period as Payton was told she couldn’t compete with her cochlear implants as the rules provide that they would create an uneven advantage.

“It was a challenge at first because I thought we would be able to wear the implants for one practice so we could get used to the Olympic ball,” she explains. “It was rough the first few times we played, but we got better.”

As the squads’ libero, Payton typically relies on the sounds of the game as well as her vision to determine what movements she should take on the court. During the Deaflympics she was forced to look at the game from a new perspective by only being able to analyze the spin and rotation of the ball.

“Not many people have that opportunity to see that higher level of play at a young age,” says Combs. “It was out of her comfort zone not being able to hear anything during competition but I think it’s an advantage because she now understands body movements and a whole new element to the game.”

Posting wins against Canada, Russia, Uzbekistan, Poland, Italy and Mexico during the Games, the United States was knocked off of the medal podium in a fierce rematch with the Russian team.

“Playing together with the team this summer made me grow as a person with the deaf culture,” says Payton, who developed lifelong friends and has now picked up sign language to enhance her communication efforts. “It doesn’t bother me anymore that I’m deaf — after my experience this summer, I just say ‘who cares?’”

MOVING FORWARD

With one final year of high school remaining before heading off to college next fall, Payton is looking forward to excelling in the classroom, enjoying the time with her friends and teammates and giving back to the community.

Payton and her Cy-Creek teammates opened play in the ultra-competitive District 17-5A on Aug. 27 where they are vying for one of four coveted playoff spots and Payton is one of the key components and senior leaders for the Cougars’ squad.

Although both academics and volleyball can consume her schedule, Payton still finds time to give back to the community by volunteering at the Star of Hope Women’s and Children’s Homeless Shelter, and Via Colori, a street art festival benefiting the Center for Hearing and Speech in Houston.

“I want to be a role model that inspires others to give back,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a rough situation — I still need to help other people. At Via Colori, working with little children that have hearing aids or implants and just being there for them and helping them know that they’re not alone is so much fun.”

Much of Payton’s desire to give back to the community stems from her faith in God and the strong network of support that she has received over the years from her immediate family, doctor, speech therapists, teachers, teammates and her grandparents.

“If you would ask me now which would I prefer — a hearing impaired kid or a normal kid — before Payton, I would have said that I wanted a normal kid,” says Chuck. “Now, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Payton’s drive and determination in her life echoes her father’s sentiment.

“Don’t let anything stop you,” she says. “There are always obstacles in life but you have to look past them and get over them and that is how you can reach success.”

LÜBBECKE BASEBALL CAMP: THE REST OF THE WEEK

Tuesday/Thursday

Camp on Tuesday and Thursday were quite similar to Monday — station rotations followed by games in the pool play. Throughout the two days, you could tell that the kids were steadily improving their skillset, and enjoyed the friendly competition during games. As a station leader working with the older campers (ages 13-19), it’s always fun to see the returnees and the excitement that they share for the little things that we take for granted in baseball – base hits, catching fly balls, putouts, etc.

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During the evening portion of the camp on Tuesday, we hosted a Texas night – which played to nearly all of the stereotypes you hear of Texas – I’m not sure if this was a good or bad thing. Regardless, we brought the game corn hole over to Germany and it seemed to be a big success. The night featured everything from country music, two-stepping, balloons for the little Germans, and corn hole.

Wednesday

Because this was the 10th anniversary of the baseball camp in Germany, Wednesday was a bit different than usual. In years past, we’ve taken half of the day to either visit various sites or play an exhibition game against a local baseball club in the region.

This year was different.

Rather than hosting camp for the morning, Wednesday was just a full day off that we spent with the Germans and the translators who do so much to make the camp a possibility each year.  We began the morning at 11 a.m. with a brunch and tour of a local mill that played a large role in the region’s economy in the 19th century.

Following the tour, we went with our host family to a famous eis café in town before we met up with our team at the camp fields at 3 p.m. for a field day full of games, human foosball, and the new German pastime – corn hole.

The day concluded with a BBQ and reflection time on the past 10 years and perhaps what is to come with the future partnership of Synergy and EFG Lübbecke. It was fascinating to hear many of the stories from those that have either attended the camp from the start and/or had just attended for the first time.

Friday

If you were looking for two words to describe Friday: record heat. According to the local paper, Friday’s temp approached nearly 100 degrees – well above average – and was the hottest recorded temperature in Western Europe that day. Needless to say, it was the hottest day of the year.

While we’re familiar with warm temperatures in Texas, Germans aren’t – and it showed with the campers. Much of them displayed visible signs of fatigue, so it was critical that we hydrated them and kept them in shaded areas as much as possible. The day was spent entirely playing baseball as part of the pool portion of the camp, so finding proper shade proved to be difficult at times.

Following the camp in Lübbecke, I traveled to Bramsche to immediately lead/coach a follow-up camp that EFG Bramsche was leading nearly two weeks after their camp. I had been to Bramsche for two prior camps – 2010, 2011 – so it was great to see many familiar faces. The evening began with a non-traditional dinner – at a local Chinese restaurant – and the night ended up around 10 or 11 p.m. as we wrapped up the extra training session.

Saturday

Saturday marked the end of the baseball camp as it concluded with the tournament. We had great crowds on hand as many parents and members of the community came out to support the kids. We wrapped up the day by reflecting on the camp as a group and spending time with our host families and German friends.

Lübbecke Baseball Camp: Day One

Editor’s Note: We are right at midnight here in Germany so my thoughts are a bit jumbled. Please excuse the poor grammar – hopefully I’ll have the time to edit and format this later.

The first day of baseball camp in Lübbecke is in the books. Below you will find highlights of each day since we left Houston on Friday.

Friday/Saturday

After arriving at IAH, we departed for Newark at 11:01 a.m. and left the Garden State for Amsterdam just after 7 p.m.

I’ve always been a fan of window seats so that I can try and capture cool images from the plane. As we wrapped up our approach to Newark, I snapped this photo of Lower Manhattan and the Freedom Tower to the North and topped it with this photo as we were taxiing the runway prior to our departure to Amsterdam. Because our flight was not direct, I didn’t sleep much on the flight across the Atlantic. However, it allowed me to take this picture of the rising sun as we entered Irish airspace.

We arrived in Amsterdam shortly after 7:45 a.m. on Saturday and met representatives from Lübbecke at the airport where we had a bus waiting for us that would take us to Germany. Unfortunately the weather is unseasonably warm right now, and the bus didn’t have air conditioning, so it made for a long four-hour ride to Lübbecke.

However, it was great catching up with my host family—the Wache’s—when we arrived.

Sunday

We met up at EFG Lübbecke Sunday morning and followed with a lunch at a local Biergarten in which everyone in our party enjoyed Schnitzel – a German staple. After a bit of downtime, we began meeting with the translators for the camp – most of which were once campers themselves – and went over the logistics of the camp and began to sort equipment.

That evening we were informed that the field that we were going to use had suffered a slight mishap late last week. Apparently the grounds crew had fertilized the field, but failed to water the grass, which caused the field to burn. Luckily, we were able to relocate the camp to Blasheim and utilized two of their soccer fields.

We closed the night with a BBQ at the Hinnah’s household, and enjoyed great conversation with our team and Germany friends.

Monday

The camp this year is a bit smaller than normal with 75-ish campers … but we are also hosting another camp about 10 km away, so I imagine that has impacted the attendance total.

Camp began this morning with a team meeting at 8:30 a.m. and the campers began to arrive shortly thereafter. After a stretching session, the campers paired off into their teams and began rotations where they learned various offensive and defensive skills. I was one of the hitting instructors during the morning and taught them the basics before throwing BP. My gear for baseball camp.

We finished the day with a pair of six-inning games and I was the ump for the older campers. Many of the older kids have attended seven-plus camps, so it’s always nice to see familiar faces and to see many of them grow.

However, because we have so many campers that have attended over the years, it becomes difficult to recognize all of the kids, even though most of them remember the Americans. Oddly enough, I think that is one of the coolest things because I hope that it means that we’re actually making a difference in their lives.

Due to some inclement weather, we had to cut the games short which allowed the coaches to build stronger relationships and learn more about the kids on their team.

We closed the night back at EFG Lübbecke with some skits, worship, games and a great message delivered by a German speaker.

For a photo montage of day one of the camp, I’d recommend checking out this photo gallery that was put together by Krischaan Albrecht.

Tuesday is Texas night here in Germany and I have two words: Texas Forever.

The Countdown to Lübbecke

110_538732503673_8305_nEditor’s Note: It’s been 500-plus days since I’ve updated this website — that will change in the upcoming weeks.

Since 2003, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel to Lübbecke, Germany, to share my faith through a platform that I am passionate about — baseball. In a partnership that originally began with FBCTW and has now become Synergy Missions, Germany has played a huge role in my life and offers me the chance to witness — both at home and abroad — through America’s pastime.

After sharing my story with a fellow co-worker, it was suggested that I utilize corporate matching funds to help Synergy Missions’ efforts. At BP America, employees can access up to $5,000 per employee per year through the BP Employee Matching Fund — and Synergy Missions meets the criteria through the work we do in the community by hosting camps for all ethnicities, races, and creeds. I feel confident that we’re going to be able to do great things with the funds raised.

Pretty cool, right?

On July 26, I’ll make what seems like my 20th trip to Germany. During that time, I will provide daily updates (stories, photos, videos) that highlight my trip to Lübbecke. I’m looking forward to seeing my German family — the Wache’s and many more — so stay tuned for the updates!

As always, if you have any questions or comments, you can reach me here.

Football Is King In Texas

Growing up in Texas, we had all heard the stereotype that football was considered a religion in the state. To an extent, the aforementioned isn’t too far from being a reality. Smaller towns all across the state of Texas shut down on Friday nights during the fall and the place to be is at the local high school following the local team. Hollywood has even perpetuated the notion with films such as Friday Night Lights and the eventual television series with the same name.

This year, the UIL did something that it had never done before – the organization scheduled all 10, 11-man championships in one central venue over a three-day stretch.  From Dec. 15-17, the eyes of Texas descended upon Cowboys Stadium in Arlington with the finale featuring the Class 5A Division II championship game that concluded with an unexpected runaway golf cart.

Over the three day stretch, attendance was a resounding success as record crowds were on hand. The Class 4A Division II championship game between Aledo and Manvel took home the attendance record for the weekend with an announced crowd of 43,369. The Class 5A Division I championship between Southlake Carroll and Fort Bend Hightower drew a crowd of 42,822.

On the day after Christmas I found myself watching the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl between Missouri and North Carolina and couldn’t help but notice the small crowd on hand in Shreveport, LA. To be fair, a non-premiere bowl game on the day following Christmas and poor weather were factors in the small crowd but it got me thinking – are there too many bowl games?

Through the first eight games of the college bowl season, the average bowl attendance has been 31,430. Attendance numbers should pick up as the bowl season progresses as the more tradition-rich bowl games are still on the docket. But to put things in perspective – Aledo and Manvel outdrew the first eight bowl games with Southlake and Hightower outdrawing all but the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Calling football in Texas a religion might be a stretch. However, football in Texas is King.

2011-12 College Football Bowl Game Attendance Numbers:

Gildan New Mexico Bowl: 25, 762
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: 28,076
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: 42,841
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg: 20,072
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: 24,607
Maaco Bowl Las Vegas: 35,720
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: 32,630
Advocare V100 Independence Bowl: 41,728
Little Caesars Bowl: 46,177
Belk Bowl: 58,427

The Rise of Dekaney

Last night at Cowboys Stadium, Spring Dekaney snapped Cibolo Steele’s 28-game winning streak and clinched the Class 5A Division II State Championship – the first football title for Spring ISD. On several occasions this year I’ve had numerous opportunities to cover the program as they feature one of the most talented running backs and an exciting offensive attack. Below is a feature I wrote for VYPE Houston after the Wildcats jumped out to a 5-0 start this season.

Here Come The Dekaney Wildcats
by Austin Staton

Growing pains are inherent. However, it is the resilient nature and yearning for success that breeds champions and builds character.

Four years ago, Dekaney High School fielded their first varsity football team under the direction of first-year head coach, Willie Amendola. Things weren’t easy as the squad didn’t feature a senior class and was bleak on upperclassmen as many student-athletes that were originally zoned to Dekaney opted to petition the district to stay at more traditional powers, Westfield and Spring.

With only an eight-game schedule due to Hurricane Ike, the Wildcats were winless in their first season of varsity competition. Moreover, they were outscored by nearly 35 points a game in district play and never crossed the goal-line more than twice per contest.

In both years two and three of the Amendola era, Dekaney began to provide hope for the program as they posted a 5-1 start during the 2009 season and finished the 2010 season with a 6-4 record with all four losses coming by a combined 13 points – including a pair of one point defeats at the hands of Tomball and Westfield.

That was the then.

With one of the most explosive and athletic running backs in the state of Texas in Trey Williams leading this season’s squad, the Wildcats are primed for their first playoff berth.

As an offense, Dekaney averaged more than 44 points per game through the first four games of the season. Finally catching the eyes of pundits across the Houston area, the Wildcats were set for a homecoming showdown with perennial power Klein Collins with a chance to stake their claim as one of the elite teams in the talent-rich district 13-5A.

Behind the efforts of Williams’ 215-plus total yards and three touchdowns – two rushing and one receiving – and D’Juan Hines’ four passing touchdowns, Dekaney clinched the programs’ first win over Klein Collins as they dropped the Tigers, 42-31, moving to 5-0 on the season.

“As a team we’ve talked about finishing (all season),” said Amendola. “We are more consistent throwing the football and the passing game is one of the biggest differences between this team and some of the other teams that we’ve had in the past.”

“The win against Klein Collins gave us a lot of confidence and we needed the win to show everybody that we’re here and we’re coming,” added Hines.

Through five games, Hines has completed 60 percent of his passes for 541 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Perhaps the best-kept secret on the team is Hines’ favorite target, Austin Garrett. The 6-foot-3 receiver possesses standout athletic prowess with the ability to make critical adjustments to the ball while it is in flight. Of his nine receptions on the season, the senior receiver has recorded five touchdowns and is averaging 25 yards per catch.

“All you have to do is throw it to this guy (Austin Garrett) and he is going to make a play,” said Williams, a Texas A&M commit.

In just four short years, Dekaney has formed a close knit group of student-athletes that look after each other and have a will to succeed.  Off to a 2-0 start in the ultra-competitive North Houston district, the Wildcats are right where they want to be – in the mix for their first playoff berth.

“We’ve wanted to make the playoffs for three-straight years and our time is now,” said Garrett.

“This is a team game,” added Williams. “We’re a confident team and we have a lot of team leadership and team unity. We plan on making it and hopefully God can keep blessing us to do well and protect our athletes.”

The original feature can be found here.