Before Hayley Walding walked onto Sarasota Military Academy’s campus, the school’s girls basketball program had won one game.
She arrived in August 2014, three months after Coach Robert Beckmann did the same. Beckmann was ecstatic when he saw Walding show up for preseason conditioning. Not just because he noticed her raw skills, though he did, but also because she was the seventh warm body to express interest in playing on his team. That first season, the team was relatively improved, winning four games. Walding showed flashes of potential, but remained hidden in a shell off-the-court. At those preseason workouts, Walding didn’t say as much as “Hi” to Beckmann.
She came to SMA from Julie Rohr Academy, where her eighth-grade class consisted of six people. She was accustomed to small class sizes, and did not want to adjust to crowded classrooms. Walding conceded she's shy. Instead of attending a large public school, she decided she wanted to go to SMA.
Walding’s sophomore year started her transition from bashful newcomer to team leader. She averaged 11 points per game, according to Beckmann, and met her best friend on the team, Ashley Strader, who was then a freshman.
Toward the end of the season, Beckmann pulled Walding aside for a private chat.
“He told me how much he likes me and how good I was,” Walding said. “He told me he wanted me to stay. I knew then that he saw me as a leader of the team.”
Heading into this season, Beckmann had to fill the point guard spot left by Brayden Einhaus, who graduated and is now playing at Warner University. She was the first SMA girls basketball player to earn a scholarship. Beckmann laid the challenge at the feet of his team: Someone had to walk in Einhaus’ shoes. Everyone was hesitant. Eventually, Walding broke the silence.
“Just give me the ball,” Walding told her teammates. They listened. She has been the point guard ever since, and has blossomed into an inside-out player. She has had shooting touch since her freshman year, but now has added a devastating ability to drive and get to the free throw line. Against IMG Academy on Jan. 17, Walding’s crossover made some Ascenders defenders look like bright orange practice cones.
Walding is now so respected as a leader that Beckmann lets her draw up plays on his clipboard during timeouts, provided the game is in hand. It’s something the San Antonio Spurs do with Tony Parker, Beckmann said, as do some high-level amateur programs. Walding thinks her teammates respect her because she is willing to be critical.
“Some people don’t want to hurt feelings,” Walding said. “I don’t care. I’ll tell people, even if they get mad. I’m trying to win the game.”
Walding is averaging about 16 points per game this season, according to Beckmann, and now has a chance to follow Einhaus’ lead in more ways than one. Walding said that while she has not talked to many schools about scholarships yet, she, her family and Beckmann will soon sit down and put together highlight video packages to show schools.
Walding’s talents do not contain themselves to the basketball court. Krissy Bilbrey, Walding’s aunt, recalled watching Walding, then in eighth grade at Julie Rohr Academy, perform in a production of “Bye, Bye Birdie.” Walding had told her family that she had a leading role, but as it turned out, she was the leading female in the play.
“She completely stole the show,” Bilbrey said. “She really nailed it, and I’m not just saying that. Her passion now is basketball, but back then I thought she was going to be in the theater.”
Despite her success on the stage, Walding’s burning passion remains basketball. On Dec. 5, Walding set the school girls basketball record, and tied the school’s overall record, for points in a game with 31 against the Academy of the Holy Names.
“Yeah, but we lost,” Walding said when reminded of the accomplishment.
Winning is something that weighs on Walding’s mind a lot. She and the rest of the team have a goal of winning a playoff game. That would be quite the turnaround from where the program was four years ago. The Eagles’ record stands at 6-11 as of Jan. 17, not quite where Walding and the team want it to be, but there is talent on the squad. Taking McDonald’s All-American forward Rellah Boothe and IMG Academy to double-overtime proved that.
If Walding keeps up her scoring pace and can motivate her team to finish the year on a hot streak, who knows? Maybe her goal will be accomplished after all.