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Sophia Witherspoon

USA U16 Assistant Role a Perfect Match for Sophia Witherspoon’s Passion

  • Author:
    By Steve Drumwright, Red Line Editorial
  • Date:
    Jun 13, 2021

Witherspoon has found her coaching home in high school basketball.

Sophia Witherspoon is all about preparing young basketball players for success.

That alone made her an ideal choice to be an assistant coach for the 2021 USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team that is conducting trials June 13-16 in Indianapolis. A field of 34 players will be cut down to the 12 that will compete in the 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship from Aug. 16-22 at Santiago, Chile. Sue Phillips, the head coach at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, is the USA U16 head coach, while Tom McConnell, the head women’s basketball coach at Indiana University Pennsylvania, is the other assistant.

“I’m so excited, first of all to meet the young ladies that we’ve been researching for a little bit here and get to see them on the court and get to pour into a new generation,” Witherspoon said. “That’s one of the things, to inspire these young ladies to go as far as they want to go in life.”

Witherspoon has the life experiences that will aid these players as they head into a crucial time of their life. In addition to currently being the head coach at Fort Pierce Central High School in Florida for 10 seasons, she also was a court coach for the 2018 USA Basketball U17 World Cup Team trials. Her playing career included finishing her college career at No. 6 on the University of Florida’s career scoring list, seven seasons in the WNBA as well as spending time overseas.

She also had two appearances with USA Basketball, winning a bronze medal at the 1993 USA World University Games and a bronze at the 1989 U.S. Olympic Festival with the South Team.

But those experiences alone doesn’t explain her impact. Following her 1991 graduation from Florida with a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance, the university established the Sophia Witherspoon Award for Overall Excellence. Each semester, the honor goes to one male and one female student athlete who exemplifies the same strong work ethic and positive attitude on the field and in the classroom.

“It’s one of those things that’s humbling,” said Witherspoon, 51, inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2005. “It’s humbling to know that, ‘You just do what you do.’ That’s who I am, and that’s what I do on a daily basis, and for someone to see that and to notice that and then to present something that, again, legacy, to leave a legacy behind at University of Florida. ... That’s an honor and a humbling experience as well.”

After Witherspoon graduated, she had to go overseas to play internationally. The WNBA didn’t have its first season until 1997 and only had eight teams. Witherspoon was part of the initial draft class, selected by the New York Liberty in the second round (11th overall), and played in two of the first three WNBA Finals. Now, the league is celebrating its 25th season, and Witherspoon is ecstatic with how the WNBA has grown.

“For a lot of us coming from overseas, it was kind of like a dream come true to be able to play back in the United States amongst your family, your friends,” said Witherspoon, who averaged a career-best 16.8 points per game with the 2000 Portland Fire, an expansion team. “It was almost like a dream going through the process, and now that you step back, and you really understand the history that you made, it’s humbling. It’s very humbling. While we were there, we just wanted to be able to leave a trademark legacy for those that are coming behind us, understand that this is a great opportunity to be able to play in the United States instead of having to go overseas, and we still have that opportunity.”

Now she helps set up girls at Fort Pierce Central, where she was a star, for future success. On the court, her teams made the regionals in consecutive seasons (2017-18, 2018-19). She did try a college job just down the eastern coast, as director of operations at Florida Atlantic University, but quickly went back to her hometown.

“It’s one of those things where someone has to be there to impart, to prepare them,” Witherspoon said of wanting to be a high school coach. “Not everyone can coach at the college level, and I think I was really called to this area — to get them to understand and prepare them to be ready for the next level. You feel a lot of coaches that are just doing it for the stipend of it, but I truly believe God has called me for this area, high school, to be able to prepare them for the next step in life and to really impart life lessons, so that they can become whatever they want to become.”

During the trials, she will have an audience of 34 elite players 16 years old or younger not only to coach, but also tell the stories of her experiences, including her favorite international stop of Budapest, Hungary. Among the players are the No. 1 players in the classes of 2023 (Juju Watkins) and 2024 (Joyce Edwards).

“That’s gonna be exciting to see,” Witherspoon said. “You can see them on video, but to get to work with them and get to see their skill level and just to get to know the person is going to be very exciting for us on the floor. That is one of the key things (with USA Basketball). It’s not so much them with basketball, but I think one of the things that I learned most of anything, is that when you wear USA, it’s not about you, but it’s about the team. That’s going to be the thing that we really are going to instill in this group, in every group that comes after this group.”

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.


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