I had practiced that shot a thousand times in my driveway. In fact, that seventh-grade year, in particular, I spent a lot of time working on free throws. It’s a gimme shot. One of my basketball coaches, who happened to be my dad, told me that I should be able to make a free throw every time I was at the line. So, I decided that would be my focus in seventh grade. I had a fairly good jump shot, and even sunk a few three-pointers here and there, so the form was accurate; however, there’s just something about stepping up to the free-throw line that messes with your head. Nerves kick in. The crowd takes over, and you can’t tune them out. It’s hard to concentrate. But, that year, my free throw fell into place.
I started playing traveling basketball as a sixth grader. I played on recreation teams before that, starting in second or third grade, so I knew the game. I was excited to try something different. I played on the Edina Traveling Basketball B team for four years. I wasn’t too hung up on not making the “A” team, because the girls on the B team were my friends. We had such a blast together. We played as a cohesive team, and we knew how to have fun off the court, too.
With each traveling basketball season, we played in tournaments all over the Twin Cities and in Rochester. The weekend we looked forward to the most was the Edina Classic, our home tournament. Truthfully, I think a lot of the excitement was because we didn’t have to drive far to play our games. And, of course, we wanted to do well in our hometown tournament. As part of the weekend festivities, there were side competitions. Who could sink the most three-point shots? Ballhandling. And, how many free throws could you make out of 10 balls? The coaches chose a player to represent their team in each competition. Not every team was represented, but it was usually a good group of girls.
My sixth-grade year, I didn’t participate, which was fine with me. These competitions took place in the Edina High School gym before the championship game. The number of people watching was equivalent to the number of fans inside US Bank Stadium—or so my junior-high-school mind thought.
That seventh-grade year though, my coaches chose me to participate in the free-throw competition. I guess my driveway practices were paying off. When it came time to sit in the high school stands, waiting for my name to be called to start the competition, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought. I waited patiently with my green uniform on and didn’t think about it.
Then, the announcer said, “And, from the Edina B Team, Jenny Cascarano”(Yea, I went by Jenny back in the day). I stood up from my seat and walked onto the court to the farthest hoop away. I took my place at the free throw line, got my stance set up and took a deep breath.
Then, the buzzer went off. It was time to start. I had 10 balls to the right of me. There was a referee standing nearby to count how many shots I made. I went through my free throw routine—because every player has a routine at the line.
First ball: Made it. I checked back in with my stance and grabbed the next ball. I noticed that I still wasn’t terribly nervous.
Second ball: Made it.
It was as if I was on repeat for the next six shots; however, I fell short a couple of times and ended up making only eight. I had a feeling it wasn’t enough to win. The referees delivered their player’s total to the announcers’ table. All of the participants, including myself, waited at their respective baskets.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a tie,” the announcer said.
I never thought it would be me, but after he announced the first girl’s name, he said, “… and Jenny Cascarano both made eight baskets.”
Apparently, there couldn’t be a tie, so we had to do a free-throw shoot off. Ball for ball. We decided to use the basket I was standing at, so everyone walked over to get ready. This was when the nerves were supposed to kick in. I would be lying if I said they didn’t. But, looking back, I wasn’t as nervous as you thought. Sure, there were butterflies. And, yes, my hands were clammy. But, it wasn’t more than that.
I’m not sure how we determined who would shoot first, but I guess she drew the short stick because she kicked it off.
Ball one: Made it.
My turn. Made it.
Ball two: Made it. And, so did I.
We went on like this for eight shots. And then, it happened. She missed her ninth free throw. If I made that ninth basket, I would win the seventh-grade free throw competition. Hearing myself talk about that day now, it sounds silly, but at the time, it was a big deal.
I went through my usual routine: Dribble, pause, dribble, dribble, pause and set it up. I jumped, let go of the ball and swish, it went in. No joke, I swished it!
It was as if the crowd was gone for the last 15 minutes, and now, they appeared again. The cheers, the yells, the screams … it was nonstop. I walked over to the announcer’s table to grab my trophy and soak in what just happened. You would think that moment, right there, would have been the highlight. But, you know what? It was actually the walk back to my seat. As soon as I stepped on the bleachers, the Edina kids—those I knew and those I didn’t—came running over to say, “Congrats,” “Great job,” “Way to go.” Seeing my parents as excited as I was, if not more than me, was incredible.
All those hours I practiced that same shot, over and over, in my driveway paid off. It wasn’t all luck, although that played a part. But, if I hadn’t put in the time, I don’t think my nerves would have been as calm and my confidence as present.
And, now, with my own kids, I say, “You know what? Mom won a free-throw competition in seventh grade by working really hard, so I know exactly what I’m talking about.” I think that gives me some pretty good street-cred.
What I learned as an athlete
Practice, practice, practice. I know games are fun to play, but if you don’t practice, then those games aren’t as enjoyable. It’s so important to go the extra mile and practice on your own, in your driveway, backyard or kitchen. Go beyond your team practice, and maybe you will surprise yourself one day, just like I did. Also, it must be said, always listen to your parents.