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Looking effortless: St. Ignace player Ella Adams makes basketball shooting seem easy with just one hand as she’s named Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award winner

Ella Adams, left, of St. Ignace competes with the Saints' JV team during a game this past season against the Sault Ste. Marie High School freshman team. Having just one hand hasn't slowed Adams from competing in sports. She split time between St. Ignace's JV and varsity basketball teams and was a solid contributor for both. (Sault News photo by Rob Roos)

ST. IGNACE — Ella Adams steps to the free throw line and takes her time.

She sets up perfectly and displays textbook form on the release of her shot, flicking her wrist and following through with her right hand.

Everything is aligned perfectly and the ball cleanly swishes through the hoop.

It would be easy to not even notice Adams does not have a left hand.

“Her free throws are so pretty,” St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. “She has a beautiful stroke with her shot. I’m tempted to put her in to shoot whenever we get a technical foul shot, just so I can watch her shoot.”

Adams was named the winter recipient of the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

The award is named after the late Gil Heard, who served as the sports information director at Northern Michigan University for 23 years. Heard is also a U.P. Sports Hall of Fame inductee from 1990.

The award is presented annually by the UPSSA to a high school athlete who has demonstrated great courage in overcoming disabilities or other hardships in achieving athletic excellence.

Adams blends in as any other member of the St. Ignace Lady Saints girls basketball team (10-1), ranked No. 2 in the state in Division 4.

Adams, a sophomore, has split time between the Saints junior varsity and varsity. The varsity team has competed with only seven or eight players most of the season due to injuries and Adams has contributed when needed, coming off the bench.

In order to compete at their best, the Saints have rotated a few sophomores between JV and varsity.

“She’s already helped us a lot in some big games,” Ingalls said of Adams. “She’s stepped right in and hasn’t batted an eye about competing and mixing it up with the varsity. She’s a smart player. She knows how to utilize her skills.

“She always has a smile, and she’s fun person to be around, a great kid,” Ingalls said. “She shows us all how to overcome obstacles. She’s an inspiration to me and makes me proud to be her coach.”

Having only one hand hasn’t put any limits on Adams from participating in sports, and she has found a niche so far with St. Ignace volleyball and basketball.

Adams says she’s been playing basketball since second grade, so she’s just learned ways to compete. One of the major keys to honing her basketball skills has been by attending a camp called NubAbility Athletics.

“Kids from all over the world attend the camps,” Adams said. “I’ve learned a lot there. From how to put my hair into a ponytail, to many other things. That’s how I’ve developed my (basketball) game.

“There are so many inspirational people there. They show you that there are no limits to what you can do.”

While so far she’s been a role player when called up to varsity, Adams has been thriving at the JV level. The St. Ignace JVs were 22-3 during Adams’ two years. In JV games this season, Adams averaged 16.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.2 steals and four assists per game.

“Ella works harder at every drill and every possession than any player I have ever coached,” St. Ignace JV coach Garth Law said. “The majority of the time she does it with a smile on her face, almost challenging you to push her harder.

“She makes every player she plays with and me as a coach want to be better than I was yesterday.”

Having one hand doesn’t seem to limit the range on Adams’ shot, either. She is shooting 76.6 percent from the line and 43.3 percent from the field, including 41.1 percent from 3-point distance.

“I feel I can shoot from up to 3-point distance,” Adams said. “I actually like that shot (3-pointers). If I’m open, I’ll take it.”

While her basketball skills are making people take notice, perhaps Adams has developed an ever greater skill of making people not notice any differences between her and any other high school sophomore.

“When I first started coaching her, I was a little worried about what I could say, and wanted to make sure I wasn’t offending her,” Ingalls said. “We’ve had practice drills where we’ll talk about using our left hands. A few times she smiled and asked, ‘Is it OK if I use my right?’

“We’re past any communication worries, and that is because Ella makes people feel so comfortable to be around her,” Ingalls said. “She makes you feel at ease, and we can talk and not worry about saying something offending. That’s a great life lesson for all of us.”

Adams tries to take some tips from veteran players on the Saints varsity basketball team, which finished state runners-up last season in Division 4 and was set to play in the regional tournament championship game when the season was called due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I love it, being part of a team that has such a tradition,” Adams said of playing for the Saints. “I’m just trying to fit in and help wherever they need me, varsity or JV. Competing with the varsity has helped my confidence a lot. Ever since I was competing with the Junior Saints program, everyone always looked up to the varsity team. It’s everything I could have hoped for, being with so many good players.

“I try to watch what Hallie Marshall does, since she plays point guard like me,” Adams said. “Ally Schultz has really helped me a lot, and is always giving me tips. Really, everybody on the team is helpful.”

Marshall was named the All-Upper Peninsula Player of the Year in Division 4, while Schultz was named to that division’s First Team.

Before the spring sports seasons were called off by the MHSAA just over a week ago, Adams was still thinking about participating in one after already taking part in volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter.

Softball was a possibility since she’s played in youth leagues and has a background in the sport.

She is also familiar with former Major League Baseball star pitcher Jim Abbott, a Flint native who overcame a similar limb-different disability to play 10 years in the majors in the 1990s and threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet (about playing), but I do like softball,” Adams said. “I liked to pitch. If I can find a way to get my glove on in time, like he did, maybe I could make it work.”

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