David Briggs: Why did one coach vote Notre Dame's VanSlooten 13th in the district?

David Briggs, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·7 min read

Feb. 24—There are many things open to debate in this world.

Whether Grace VanSlooten is one of the top girls basketball players in northwest Ohio is not one of them.

A dynamic junior forward ranked by ESPN as the 16th-best high school prospect in the nation in the 2022 class, VanSlooten is in the middle of another dominant season, averaging 20.2 points and 12.7 rebounds for No. 5 Notre Dame.

By any account, the reigning Blade player of the year is one of the finest players to ever pass through Toledo.

Well, almost any.

I say all of this to set the stage for the latest act in the theater of the absurd, as presented by the most imaginative basketball coaches in District 7.

A year after the dramarama of the rogue voter who cost Toledo Christian star Madison Royal-Davis initial recognition as the Division IV district player of the year — the Ayersville coach voted the most prolific girls scorer in Toledo history 12th — we have a ballot just as detached from reality.

In the Division I vote this season, Clay coach Julia Henneman-Dallape put VanSlooten ... 13th.

13th!

And it was no oversight, per sources with knowledge of the situation.

When confronted about her vote — an outlier so extreme that it prevented VanSlooten from winning player of the year by four points — Henneman-Dallape stood by her ballot. It was only after wiser heads prevailed that she agreed to bump up her vote just enough to create a first-place tie for top district honors in Division I.

VanSlooten and Northview senior guard Kacee Baumhower were named co-players of the year.

Now, before we go on, I can see some of you nodding your heads.

What else is new, right? Instances of small-time politics influencing high school awards voting are as old as a summer day is long.

We're not here to turn a relative molehill into Kilimanjaro. Nor are we out to vilify any coach or take anything away from Baumhower, a truly fantastic player who deserves every accolade that comes her way.

Just ask VanSlooten, who is as gracious as she is gifted.

"When I talked to Grace," Notre Dame coach Travis Galloway said, "her comment to me was that she was honored to be co-player of the year with another great player, Kacee, who's had a great year herself."

Well said.

Still, while all is well that ends well, nothing will ever change if these behind-the-scenes disputes remain in the shadows, written off as politics as usual.

Sometimes, there are votes so mystifyingly beyond reason — and so apparently vindictive toward a rival school — that they warrant an explanation.

This is one of those cases.

In a brief interview, Henneman-Dallape, the first-year Clay coach, said her vote was strictly merit-based, noting her team's lone regular-season meeting against Notre Dame. VanSlooten was out with an illness that sidelined her for one game.

"We didn't play against her this year," Henneman-Dallape said. "Not to discredit her whatsoever, but our first game against them was 92-19 without playing against her. Then I looked at other teams where, without a certain player, would those teams be as successful? By no means was there any intent to discredit her ability."

What about to sneak in a shot at the private-school powerhouse for which she plays? She insisted she had no ulterior motives.

"Look, these kids work hard, and by no means was this there was any malicious intent behind this," Henneman-Dallape said. "I don't understand why an adult would punish a child, especially one that they don't know. There was absolutely no malice involved in any of this. I think there have been a lot of people that are misinformed and speaking without asking what the reasoning was behind it."

Fair enough, I suppose.

It's just that the reasoning is hard to fathom. That would be like saying LeBron James is not an All-Star because the Lakers won a game without him. Or that Nick Saban is a dime-a-dozen coach because Alabama beat Auburn 42-13 without him there this season.

Worth noting: Henneman-Dallape is well aware of VanSlooten, having seen her play before — her daughter was a star at Clay last season — and, for that matter, since the vote. (In Notre Dame's 82-24 over Clay in a Division I sectional final last week, VanSlooten scored 35 points in the first half. She finished with 40.)

Also worth noting: EVERYONE is aware of VanSlooten, including Baylor, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, and Tennessee, just to name a few of the big-time schools in her out-the-door line of suitors.

To vote VanSlooten the 13th-best player in one small division of one small corner of Ohio — there are 13 Division I girls teams in District 7 — is, of course, nonsensical.

And while we can't divine the true motivation of any given vote, I'll repeat what I said last year about voting for high school awards.

There is a difference between the provincial — as in giving priority to the local players you know best — and the personal, and there's never a reason for an adult to weaponize his or her vote against a kid in the name of some petty grievance or broader commentary.

Clay athletic director Mark Beach could not have preached any louder when he spoke of the need for reform.

"I'm not comfortable with the voting process," he said. "In every sport, when it comes to seeding teams or postseason individual awards, there is almost always block voting. There's also almost always a situation where it's in a coach's best interest, the way it's set up, to fight for his or her own kid. And in fighting for his own kid, it's in his best interest to vote — I don't want to say disingenuously — but to vote somebody else a little lower than they ordinarily would.

"From my vantage point, when you talk a coach about that, they're like, 'Well, I'm fighting for my kid.' You want coaches fighting for their kid. But what you're trying to do is get the best kids and the best teams the appropriate acknowledgement, self-interest be damned. And you can't get rid of the self-interest the way it is today. I would love to see them throw out the low votes. That way if a coach intentionally tanks a team or a player, it's like the old U.S.-Russia days. The Russian scores you a 6, the others give you a 9, you throw out the anomaly. There's a better way of doing this."

As for the anomaly in question here, Beach said he did not tell Henneman-Dallape to change her ballot, but he and others did ask her to reconsider, laying out the potential far-reaching consequences of a vote that was difficult to defend.

"The biggest thing I said to her is that you need to understand the biggest sources of conflict are seeding and the voting on awards," he said. "When you're a maverick, you're setting yourself up and your kids up for payback. That's not going to be a one-time thing."

Here's hoping that isn't the case, but I wouldn't hold my breath, either.

As we've sadly learned season after season, it wouldn't be February without a completely needless high school voting controversy.

I dialed Galloway for the second time in a year this week. Our previous conversation was about the last Ballot-Gate, given his former role as president of the Northwest Ohio Basketball Coaches Association. Before we ended this call, he laughed.

"Hey, I'm not going to lie," he said, "hopefully we don't talk next February."

First Published February 23, 2021, 3:16pm