Athlete of the Month03-20-2012
Beware the Mask: South Jefferson's Austin Stevens is picture of toughness
The emergency papier-mache project began with a trip to Michael’s craft store to buy rigid wrap. Roy Stevens and his daughter, Austin, hurried home and cleared out a spot in the family living room to work. There, Stevens began the process of dunking the individual strips of plastic gauze in water and delicately placing them to form a mold. The subject was his daughter’s face.
Austin Stevens now wears the result of that project. It’s a protective mask that allows the South Jefferson High School forward to play basketball. Friday, Stevens will lead the undefeated Spartans (23-0) against Rochester Aquinas (15-8) in a semifinal contest of the Class B state basketball tournament. The 10 a.m. game is at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
Stevens, who broke her nose and cracked two front teeth in a horrific accident during a game in late January, has returned with a vengeance. The 14-year-old sophomore is averaging more than 20 points during the playoffs and leads the Spartans in rebounding, averaging 7.5 a game. Stevens has been selected as The Post-Standard’s honor athlete of the week.
“Her game has blossomed in the past month,” said South Jeff head coach Pat Bassett, who will hit the 300-win plateau if the Spartans win another state title this weekend. “She’s found this other level.”
Stevens scored 27 points in a regional championship victory over Oneonta last week. She had 23 in a Section III playoff win over previously undefeated Westhill. Stevens did so playing with a plastic mask strapped to her face following a collision in a Jan. 24 game against Altmar-Parish Williamstown.
Stevens said she dived on the floor for a loose ball. An opposing player accidentally fell on top of her, driving Stevens’ face into the court. She suffered a broken nose and cracked her front teeth.
For Roy and Sydney Stevens, it was a horror show. Austin’s parents waited in the stands until an assistant coached summoned them. It was suggested they visit a hospital emergency room.
“You’re just in shock,” said Sydney Stevens, Austin’s mother. “You try not to panic.”
Roy Stevens said his daughter never cried until they got into the hallway outside the South Jeff gym. He said she worried about missing the Section III tournament. Instead, she missed a handful of practices and one game.
Bassett said Stevens never changed her aggressive approach. She borrowed a plastic mask that Bassett’s son, Tom, used the previous season. At practice, Stevens drew a charge, causing Bassett to ask her if it wasn’t more prudent to take it easy. Stevens barked, “No!,” at her coach.
“I didn’t care,” she said. “I had to keep playing.”
Roy Stevens began investigating custom masks. He turned to Jeremy Murray, who has designed protective masks for NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Rip Hamilton. That led to the Stevens making a mold. He slathered a coat of Vaseline on Austin’s face, then placed one strip at time over closed eyes and her swollen nose. The process took more than an hour. It took another half-hour to dry.
“My dad is pretty creative,” Austin said. “He handled it well.”
They shipped the mold to Murray. A week later, the clear, hard-shell mask made of Vivak — a co-polyester compound — arrived via overnight shipping at the family business in Adams, a barber shop. After some adjustments with the straps, Austin was good to go.
“When I’m happy, I play better,” Stevens said. “When you get on the court, its all business. I don’t like to sit back and watch. I like to stick my face right in there.”
Bassett said Stevens has become a more polished finisher around the basket. It has made the Spartans more formidable and taken pressure off South Jeff’s other big gun, guard Amanda Roberts.
“When you watch her play and the passion that she plays with, you can only admire a kid like that,” said Westhill coach Sue Ludwig. “The night we played South Jeff, we had no answers for her. She’s become the heart of that team.”
On Monday, Stevens had a root canal for one of her front teeth. She practiced that afternoon. That kind of toughness is a reason South Jefferson hopes it can win a third state championship banner for its school gymnasium.
Stevens said she feels a personal responsibility to add another title because of the school’s tradition. She’s mentally ready, toughened by the experience of her injury and the attention wearing a mask brings. Some fans have chanted “face mask” at her. Stevens doesn’t care and finds the attention, “kind of cool.” Bassett calls Stevens one of the toughest kids he’s ever coached.
“My team has kind of lacked a voice,” Bassett said. “Austin has stepped into that role. You hear her voice all the time. It’s almost like its becoming her team.”
Staff writer Donnie Webb can be reached at 470-2149 or email@example.com