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Baranek: Rich East junior Ashley Dennis coming into her own on the basketball court

Rich East junior Ashley Dennis

Rich East junior Ashley Dennis

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Updated: January 24, 2014 6:31AM



Whatever the present is that Rich East junior Ashley Dennis gives to her grandfather on Christmas morning, it will be hard to top the gift that she has been giving him for the past several weeks.

Ronnie Dennis has been able to see his granddaughter become the kind of girls basketball player he always told her she could be.

The 5-foot-10 forward has put up eye-popping numbers for the Rockets this season, averaging 26 points and 14 rebounds. She was a driving force during the Oak Lawn Varsity Girls Holiday Tournament, leading Rich East to the title game. Rich East lost that encounter to the host Spartans, but Dennis was still impressive with 20 points and 17 boards.

The numbers are more startling when you consider that last season as a sophomore, Dennis averaged 8.8 points and less than three rebounds.

“Ashley has come a long way,” Rockets coach Jonnie Bass said. “In one year she has grown miles and miles from being a young, inexperienced, immature sophomore. She’s my leader on the court, she’s my captain, and she keeps all of the other kids grounded, because we have a young team.”

Anyone who knows her probably had no doubts it would happen. Especially anyone who knew how far she had come already.

This story really goes back to seventh grade, when Dennis was a student at Huth Middle School in Matteson.

Basketball was nowhere on her radar.

“I was into hanging out with my friends and playing volleyball. Volleyball was my sport. I was real strong as a young kid, so I liked hitting the ball hard.”

The fast pace of basketball didn’t have much appeal.

“In seventh grade I was like, ‘No, I’m (kind of) a big girl. I can’t go up and down the court,’ ” Dennis said.

That’s where grandpa made his first impact.

“He’s like my mentor,” she said. “I couldn’t stand basketball, but he was like, ‘Ashley, you know how to play. Just play.’ My mom was always around, but he was the one who would take me to my games, take me to practice and do all of that stuff for me.

“He’d say, ‘Ashley, in order to do what you want to do, you have to push yourself.’ Every obstacle, I had to push myself. I couldn’t do it just getting by, I had to work for it.”

Dennis said she pushed herself by running with her younger male cousins, and lifting weights in the gym. She said the result was a big weight loss. I told her maybe I shouldn’t ask, but …

“Oh, no,” she said laughing. “I’ll talk about it. In seventh grade I was 200 pounds. But freshman year I was going down and down. By my junior year I hit 160. I’m getting better and better.”

Dennis spent four games during her freshman year on the sophomore team at Rich East before being called up to the varsity by head coach Jonnie Bass. Challenges, it seemed, just kept on coming. Another one involved teammate and point guard Danielle King, who transferred to Bloom after her freshman year.

“She’s my best friend,” Dennis said. “I had thought it was going to be me and her together, plus with (freshman) Jordan (Towery) coming in it was going to be a better team. But she had to do what she had to do. When she left I felt like I had to take over and be a better Rocket.”

Dennis joined Ron Newquist’s Wolverines club team after her sophomore season, and says that the travel ball she played over the summer toughened her up.

These days she’s challenging herself.

“I really hope I get a college scholarship by my senior year, because I really love basketball,” she said. “It’s a part of me now.”



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