by Olivia Martin
ROELAND PARK— They weren’t even close.
That is, the Canadians weren’t.
On June 22, the USA Women’s U16 national basketball team defeated Canada at the 2019 Americas tournament in Aysen, Chile, with a final score of 87-37 and undefeated throughout. The team returned to the United States weighed down with gold medals, led by their captain and tournament MVP Payton Verhulst.
A junior at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Verhulst was selected among thousands as one of 12 players to represent the U.S. in the tournament.
And while her game is international, there’s still no place like home.
At home at Miege
Terry English, a St. Agnes parishioner and head coach of Bishop Miege’s girls basketball team, has coached a lot of young women over the years. Some have gone on to play in college, others professionally.
But one thing is certain: He’s never coached anyone like Verhulst.
“I think she’s the best I’ve ever coached,” said English. “She’s helpful and a born leader. She has fun with her teammates at practice and she . . . doesn’t act like she’s above them.”
Teammate Emajin McCullop, a sophomore at Miege, agreed.
“I admire how humble [Verhulst] is,” said McCullop. “You wouldn’t even know that she plays basketball.”
McCullop and her teammates have found that rather than being a source of intimidation, Verhulst spreads positivity on and off the court.
“[Verhulst] cares so much for each player — no matter how good or bad they are at basketball,” said Sydney Tumberger, a recent graduate of Miege and former teammate. “She made our whole team feel like a family and was always willing to [help] someone when they were doing something wrong.”
This candor is something Ashton Verhulst admires most about her sister.
“When I was younger, I would get mad at others if they made mistakes and I’d let it define how I played,” said Ashton, a senior at Miege. “Payton always forgives [others] for the mistakes they made and encourages them to do better.
“Even though I’m the older sister, she’s more of a role model for me. She encourages me to be a better Catholic.”
Gotta have faith
For Verhulst, Catholicism is essential to how she plays basketball.
“Faith is a big part of it because I get frustrated really easily when I’m playing,” said Verhulst. “[But] God gave me this cross to bear so I . . . [try] to just push through and stay positive.”
As a team captain in Chile, Verhulst took the opportunity to awaken her teammates to the reality of Christ present.
“I [said to them] that the only reason we all made it [to Chile] was because God had given us these great abilities and gifts,” she said. “We held hands and prayed before [each] game. . . . It was perfect.”
And the road to the U16 Americas tournament was not for those of little faith.
Tryouts took place at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs starting May 23 and lasted until mid June.
“We tried out for three days in the first round and there were around 150 girls,” said Verhulst. “By the end of the third day, we were down to 40 people. All you do is scrimmage on the last day . . . and then they announce who the final 18 are.”
At that point, the players are allowed to go home for five days to rest.
“You go back to Colorado, try out for another week just practicing with each other, and at the end of that week they choose 12,” she said.
It was those 12 who went, saw and conquered in Chile. They defeated Mexico, Puerto Rico, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador and Canada.
And while Verhulst has achieved a lot this summer, it’s only the beginning.
“She lets the playing on the floor do all the talking — and it’s starting to talk pretty loud,” said English. “There are only two schools in the United States that haven’t really shown an interest in her yet.
“I think she could be an Olympic player someday.”
Verhulst said she would love nothing more.
But her coach said he has another wish for Verhulst as well.
“Faith at Miege is always a center point for the kids,” he said.
“Hopefully we will be a small part of helping her be the kind of player she wants to become.”