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Center of attention WNY's best player tries to stand out from the crowd during summer competition

This is the second of two stories detailing "July Madness," women's college basketball recruiting season. Today's story follows Pioneer's Joelle Connelly.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Summer vacations for the Connelly family have revolved around basketball tournaments for the past few years. This year, the first week of July found them at Penn State University for the Blue Chip Basketball USA Invitational.

Joelle Connelly, a senior to be at Pioneer and the reigning Buffalo News Player of the Year, had her own cheering section as her parents, her younger siblings and her grandfather made the trip to watch her play nine games in five days with her AAU team -- the Crystal City Stars.

Such is the life of trying to earn a college basketball scholarship. July is the audition month for would-be college players.

It's a total commitment, from Joelle and the family, with the hopes that the extra exposure will earn her a scholarship at a high level Division I school.

Right now, plenty of schools are knocking on her door but the process is long and involved and simultaneously fun and frustrating.

>Getting noticed

The Crystal City Stars began their Penn State experience on July 5, playing on one of four courts set up in a building that houses the college's indoor track.

Division I coaches aren't allowed to watch games until July 6, when the sanctioned NCAA evaluation period begins so the teams played just once on opening day -- a nice calm before the storm of two games every day for the next four days.

After Connelly jumps center, she and her team dominate the game. At 6-foot-2 with a strong, muscular body, she's the biggest post player on the floor, able to throw up a hook shot or make a low-post move at will.

Her team won in a blowout -- 99-18. Not all these games are this easy and afterward, Connelly wasn't thrilled with the way the game went. Easy wins don't impress college coaches and that's what these summer tournaments are all about.

It was at an AAU event last year that coaches from Georgetown spotted her and began recruiting her. The University of Massachusetts, Canisius and St. Bonaventure are among the schools vying for Connelly, though NCAA rules prohibit coaches from making public comments about potential recruits.

The process for the athlete can seem endless, beginning with summer ball at a young age. Connelly began playing on AAU teams when she was 10 years old. As she got older, and the stakes got higher, she played even more.

This weekend marked the sixth tournament of the summer for Connelly, though she gets a bit of a break in the middle of the month before going to U.S. Junior Nationals in Washington, D.C., starting July 22.

"It's basketball 24-7," Connelly said. "It's basically pretty busy. Usually where you get your most exposure is through AAU. I usually get letters [from college coaches] after [the AAU season] because no one goes out to Pioneer to watch people play."

Those letters came piling in after her last AAU season. Since the start of her junior year, Connelly has received more than 600 pieces of mail.

"When I first started it was real exciting but then I got a little overwhelmed -- especially when the phone calls started coming in," Connelly said. "I'd get three or four phone calls a day and I'm used to playing with my friends, hanging out, but then you have to take the time to do that. That was really overwhelming but I like it a lot more now."

>Making decisions

Connelly's team won its first three games but had to face a young and highly talented team from New Jersey on the third day of the tournament. The far baseline of the auxiliary gym was packed with college coaches fine-tuning their assessments, making plays for the seniors and evaluating the young players. The summer AAU season is when high school freshmen and sophomores start making impressions on college coaching staffs. This is where they get noticed.

The game was tight through the first 16-minute half but the younger Jersey team pulled away in the second half and won by around 20 points. Connelly played well in the low post but the guards were overmatched.

Still, losing games isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can show a player's character.

"It's tough because the kids play so much they often become numb to losing," Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. "I don't want to see a kid pout, but I want to see the look on their face that they want to win."

Burnout is a factor and the Connellys take that possibility seriously with their daughter.

"We tell her in August she doesn't have to touch a basketball," her mother, Debbie, said.

Once the whirlwind of July is complete, Connelly will again field phone calls and e-mails from coaches and start weighing her scholarship options. While she would like to make a verbal commitment this summer, her family is urging her to wait until after she makes her official visits in September.

"I want to sort of get out of our area, but my family doesn't want me to," Connelly said. "I'm still open. I'm still looking at the local colleges so we'll see. I don't know where I'm going to go. I'm looking more at basketball because I don't know what I'm going to do when I get older. I'd like to play professionally overseas after college so I'll probably pick a school that fits best for basketball."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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