Van Buren senior, Ira Sandoval, grows into basketball role.

Ira Sandoval didn’t play youth basketball growing up in Van Buren, and was ready to quit the sport after playing in just the seventh and eighth grades.
“It wasn’t something she really picked up and was passionate about,” Van Buren head coach Chris Bryant said. “She’s very good at track. She qualified for the state track meet as a sophomore in the 300-meter hurdles. That’s a tough individual race. If you run the 300-meter hurdles, there’s either something wrong with you or you’ve got a special competitiveness. That’s where we found her. Her track background is the main reason she’s as competitive as she is.”
Soon, though, Sandoval learned to love basketball, and is another testament to playing multiple sports.
    “I’ve got a passion for it, but at first I was just like ‘well, my friends are doing it so I’ll give it a shot,’” Sandoval said.
    That ninth-grade year, though, she needed a little coaxing by Van Buren freshman academy coach Becky Goerig, who noticed she hadn’t signed up to play basketball.
    “Coach Goerig gets her out of English class to tell her she is going to play basketball,” Bryant said. “Had she not done that, there’s a great likelihood that she’s not out here now and we would certainly be the less fortunate for it.”
    Sandoval was one of the first players off the bench for the Lady Pointers last year as Van Buren made its run to the Class 7A semifinals before losing to North Little Rock.
    With four seniors graduated off that team, Sandoval moved into several roles.
    “I see it as a role model to others, just contributing with everybody else out there on the floor, seeing work to be done and helping the others,” Sandoval said.
    Sandoval is second on the team in scoring with 7.3 points per game behind All-State guard Jamilyn Kinney. Sandoval leads the team in rebounding at 7 per game despite giving away size every game.
    “Just unbelievable effort,” Bryant said. “She loves to live around the 9-rebounds-per-game mark and she’s 5-6. All heart, all effort. She’s a very special kid.”
    The Lady Pointers usually play a zone defense, but Sandoval was matched up with Springdale’s 6-foot Marquesha Davis, one of the top players in the state.
    “We don’t really play a man-to-man but the one time I have guarded someone was Marquesha Davis,” Sandoval said. “We’re not the same size, but it’s always somebody new and we’re not ever the same when I’m guarding somebody.”
    Sandoval’s rebounding prowess and defensive intensity helped Van Buren hold its opponents to under 40 points in 17 games and to lead the 7A-West in defensive scoring at just 35.2 points per game.
    “We’re not the biggest team but when I’m matched up with the biggest person out there, I just have to take it,” Sandoval said. “I know I’m not as capable as some people out there, but we’re in it to win it and you just have to put it all out on the court and see where it takes you. We’re not going to give up.”
    Despite four new starters this year, Van Buren earned the fourth seed from the 7A-West and will play Bryant in the first round of the Class 7A state tournament on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at North Little Rock.
    Sandoval is one of four seniors on the team along with Kinney, Zaiyah Frazier and Makiaya Fey.
“Zaiyah’s started a few games this semester, she’s been in our rotation and had an increased role once conference started,” Bryant said. “The need to add someone who can create and her activity defensively has really been a boost for us. She’s been a pleasant surprise for us the second half of the season. You’re not going to find Makiaya on the floor with a lot of minutes, but she’s a special kid and have enjoyed having her on the team as much as anybody.”
Then, of course, there’s Kinney, who’s a four-year starter, the second leading scorer in team history and the first in the big-school era, and headed to Belmont University to continue her career collegiately.
“Her leadership, her willingness to make others better,” Bryant said. “There’s a lot of really good players out there and the differentiating characteristic or the biggest quality is who makes others around them better. I haven’t coached anybody who’s improved the play of the others around them like Jamilyn has.”
Sandoval was also looked upon to be a leader as a returning senior with significant playing time.
“During offseason, we put in a lot of work,” Sandoval said. “I was just out there trying to do the best I could so I could be out there on the court giving it my all, trying to be focused and cooperating with the others and being a team leader.”
Sandoval also brings a calming yet tough attitude to the court.
“I do see myself as that, but I don’t show it,” Sandoval said. “I just lay low.”
That grit is witnessed by the 115 free throws she has shot this year, which leads the team.
    That toughness, that competitiveness has helped her be leader for the 17-10 Lady Pointers, who had to battle to the end of the conference season to earn a good seed in the state tournament.
    “We all put our best effort out there,” Sandoval said. “We try to work together as a team and get the best out of each other. It has been a battle for us, but it shows us where we can grow as a team and where we can improve as a team as well. We took them one a time. We had new people this year and a different lineup so we had other skills on the floor that we could work with and win games with.”