From player to coach


OBSERVER Sports Editor

Ripley’s Ryleigh Hawkins wears the No. 11 jersey for the girls basketball team.

Her coach, Heather Belson, says Hawkins wears the jersey to her approval.

It was just five years ago Belson was wearing the same jersey in helping Ripley reach the New York State Public High School Athletic Association girls high school basketball Final Four.

Now, Belson is a dental assistant during the day, and the Lady Eagles’ coach at night, trying to turn around a program which hasn’t had much success since that magical 2008 run to Hudson Valley Community College.

Belson was known for her physical demeanor on the court and her instincts for the ball while playing for then-coach Alex Reyda.

“She was always real tough and physical,” Reyda, who is now the Ripley athletic director, recalled. “She played real good defense and went after the ball for rebounds.”

While looking for a coach to lead the Lady Eagles, Reyda was searching for someone who knew the game and could help give the team an identity.

“She coached my JV volleyball team at Ripley and did a really good job,” Reyda said. “We had the opening and she was interested so I took her on. I still want to see the girls play within the same system we played with before and she was familiar with it. She was a good fit. She works the girls hard. She has a lot of enthusiasm. She is a tough cookie.”

Even though it’s been five years since the journey which ended in Troy, Belson still looks back on the experience with fondness.

Ripley entered the 2008 Section 6 Class D playoffs as a No. 6 seed and trounced No. 3 Ellicottville, 72-34, in the quarterfinals. The semifinals win was even more impressive as the Lady Eagles manhandled No. 2 West Valley, 58-11.

In that game, Belson scored 12 points including 10 points in the third quarter to spark a 15-6 run.

See BELSON, Page B4

The victory led to a rematch with No. 1 Sherman – a team which had beaten Ripley two times in the regular season.

The third time proved to be the charm for Ripley as it pulled off the 53-48 upset over the Lady Wildcats in the Chautauqua Lake Central School gymnasium for the school’s first ever Sectional crown.

“That was intense,” Belson recalled of that game. “We never beat Sherman in league. They came into that game thinking they had it in the bag and were going to Far West. They took us for granted.”

Though Belson faced early foul trouble in that contest, Reyda credited Belson’s defense as a key reason to the victory.

With a Sectional title, the Lady Eagles traveled to Canandaigua to take on Section 5’s Whitesville.

After an ice storm postponed the game a day, the Lady Eagles were able to pull off the 57-52 victory as Belson hauled down seven rebounds in the contest. The win meant Ripley was off to Hudson Valley Community College in Troy for the NYSPHSAA Final Four.

“That was super fun,” Belson said of the trip to Troy. “There was never a quiet moment with us. That’s for sure.”

Belson also noted Reyda was a trooper on the bus ride and did not wear headphones to tune out the gleeful teen-age girls.

In the semifinals, the Lady Eagles fell to defending state champion Hammond, 53-40.

“I think that was our growing year,” Belson reflected. “I think we became super close that year. We were close years before, but it glued us together. That was the best part of it. I still talk to about everybody on that team – even five years later.”

Though most of the current Lady Eagles were in middle school at the time, one player who remembers the run is Sam Judd, whose older sister, Ashley, was a member of the team. Sam was also the team manager.

“I usually give Sam a rough time,” Belson said. “I expect more out of her because she was always there. She used to run with us. I give her a rough time about it.

“It’s kind of neat,” Belson continued of the chance to tell her players about the 2008 season. “I always tell the girls about different practices I had when I was playing. They say I like to tell about war stories. When I bring it up to them, I don’t think they fully understand how big of a deal it is. They are too young to know what going to states means. I have to go into full detail.”

Telling those “war stories” has given Belson credibility in the locker room as the players realize their coach is not just someone off the street.

A valuable asset for Belson this season is having Reyda around to pick his brain and get advice.

“I text and email him all the time when I need help with something,” Belson said. “Thank God for that. He reminds me of things I had forgotten about and how to do things.”

Though Ripley is off to a slow start, Belson is enjoying her time pacing the sidelines.

“Getting to know the girls, that’s my favorite part,” she said. “We are having a learning season more than anything. I like getting to know them and see what they like to do and help them out with that.”

The Lady Eagles are learning from one of the finest.