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A royal success: Sparks excels as a multi-sport athlete for Rose Hill | Sports

ASHLAND Bellamee Sparks first trotted on the floor of Charles Stewart Gymnasium in Rose Hill Christian to practice basketball in sixth grade.

Seven years later, after a Royals career filled with time on the court — whether in basketball, tennis or volleyball — Sparks’ final high school sporting event is near.

Sparks and Lakin Deerfield will represent Rose Hill in the National Doubles Tennis Tournament next week at Top Seed Tennis Club in Nicholasville. Their first-round match is against Shelby Valley’s Chloe Sykes and McKenna Caudill on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

It will be the culmination of a career that has included three state tennis trips, a series of dramatic events in December that put Sparks’ athletic future in question — and so much time playing a sport or to another wearing blue and white that Sparks didn’t give much thought to what she liked best.

“As soon as one sport ends, I go straight to the next one,” she said. “People would ask me what is my favorite sport? And I would answer, whatever the season. I like to play sports, so whatever the season, it’s like that.

“But I think I’ve chosen now,” she added with a laugh. “Basketball!”

Hoops is indeed Sparks’ route to furthering her athletic career, as she signed with Kentucky Christian. But she’s found tennis complements her well, and her coach agrees.

“Honestly, it’s mostly what a natural athlete she is,” Rose Hill coach David Bush said. “She plays a lot more basketball than tennis and yet she does extremely well in both. I just go over strategies with her specifically for doubles and let her athleticism take care of the rest. Her anticipation and her ability to play at net are something we haven’t seen in our region for a very long time.”

That testimony carries weight, given Bush’s resume as a five-time men’s singles champion of the 16th Regional Tournament from 2010 to 2014.

Sparks inherited the title of regional champion from Rose Hill in girls’ doubles. She teamed with her older sister Delaynee Sparks to earn a spot in the regional tournament semifinals in 2019, which sent them to the state tournament. And, after the COVID-19 inactive spring of 2020, the sibling duo won the regional doubles title in 2021 – the Royals’ first regional title since Bush’s senior season.

Delaynee graduated and went on to play at Midway College. Bellamee teamed with Deerfield as a senior and defended the region’s doubles title last week, edging Rowan County’s Lydia Copher and Natalie Northcutt 6-0, 6-2.

The Sparks sisters won their first-round match in 2019 and 2021. Bellamee Sparks hopes the Royals do at least that next week.

“I feel like we got it,” Sparks said of herself and Deerfield. “Win or lose, we’ll have fun.”

SUBTITLE: Finding a way forward

Sparks had a rare break from sports in December — an unscheduled break.

Rose Hill halted its women’s basketball season – with rosters so low the Royals finished their first two games of the year with just four players on the court – to regroup, recover from some injuries and make faced with an unexpected coaching change mid-season.

It was a critical moment for Sparks. At the time of the break – which, in one of the most bizarre episodes in recent regional sports history, began with then-coach Nick Karle attempting to cancel the rest of the season, according to athletic director Johnny Bush, before Rose Hill reversed that decision. and replaced him as coach – she had yet to find a landing ground to play college basketball.

Kevin Nibert, who had been relieved as Rose Hill coach ahead of the 2021 season, swallowed his pride and resentment and returned to lead the Royals’ programme.

One of the main reasons was that he knew what was at stake for Sparks.

“When they asked me to come back, yeah, it was for Bellamee,” Nibert said of the decision. “I didn’t want her to come out like that, her senior year. I just tried to make sure that we had as many games as possible to get her out where people would notice her college career. … I did that. I did for her because we got that link.”

It was a bond forged for Nibert by six years of training Sparks girls – as well as six years of training with a Sparks.

Makenlee Sparks was in second grade and Delaynee was in seventh grade when Nibert took over the program in 2015. Michelle Sparks, their mother, was an assistant coach.

Bellamee came on board the following season as a seventh grader, having proven the previous year in a coaching setting that she could hang on.

“Bellamee started training with us when she was in sixth grade when I started,” Nibert said. “At the time, she was holding her own in sixth against the academics. And then when she got to seventh, she was ready to go.”

Bellamee Sparks was the Royals’ second-leading scorer – behind Delaynee – when she was in eighth grade, with 10.1 points per game. She topped the big sister with 12.7 points per game as a freshman and as a senior her averages hit 25.0 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.

Sparks finished his high school career with 1,878 points and 940 rebounds. After reaching out to KCU coach Lisa Conn to reconnect after a visit she made to the Grayson campus with Karle as a junior, she found a way forward with the Knights.

“His continued passion for the game and his desire to play in college is what convinced me,” Conn said of Sparks. “She’s very athletic and has a lot of potential. She just needed a continued opportunity to play.”

The connection between Nibert’s Royals and the Sparks family also came full circle when Makenlee joined the coaching staff when Nibert returned in December.

“It’s crazy to have been able to experience this with my sisters,” Bellamee said. “They’re all very supportive of me. When Kevin came back he needed someone to help him, and my sister, we were like, ‘This is perfect for you!’

“She works full-time and part-time and still went out of her way to come and help our team.”

Sparks is grateful that Nibert and his sister returned to the basketball program to help the Royals cross the finish line of the season.

“No words can truly say how grateful I am to him,” she said of Nibert.

SUBTITLE: Concluding your tennis career

With his college future secure, Sparks returned his attention to the tennis court.

She qualified for her third state tournament in the sport and, with a smile, awarded them all to her teammates.

“It’s hard to motivate myself to play tennis, but I’m glad I did,” she said, “because if I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have gotten any recognition for Rose Hill. It’s a great thing about it. And playing with people I love.”

That doesn’t mean his competitive nature doesn’t shine through. Aside from flaunting it while finding success in the region’s tournament, it’s also going out trying to get the best of its coach.

Bush announced a permanent $100 reward for any Rose Hill player who can beat him in one game, he and Sparks said. To even the odds a bit for those who oppose perhaps Northeast Kentucky’s best player of his generation, Bush is allowing the Royals to play him two-on-one, and Sparks said Bush even plays left hand.

No one collected.

“Don’t ever even get close to it,” Sparks said.

It was, however, a useful conditioning exercise.

“They’re just bound to run if they lose,” Bush said. “It’s a fun way to get them in shape, and luckily I’ve never had to pay any money yet.”

Sparks, Deerfield and the Royals are looking for a different win next week.

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zklemme@dailyindependent.com

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