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For love of the game
For love of the game

How does she do that?

It is a question Chartiers-Houston High School girls basketball coach Laura Montecalvo has asked herself a number of times along the sidelines this season.

What 14-year-old freshman point guard Za’Layah Edwards is accomplishing on the court begs the question.

Za’Layah was born without a fibula in either leg. She has clubfeet that turn inward. Her feet are webbed, with three toes on one foot and four on the other.

Montecalvo could not order Za’Layah’s game shoes with the other players because Za’Layah wears a kids’ size 2. The coach had to go to a store to purchase Za’Layah’s shoes.

She faces physical struggles in her everyday life, let alone on the basketball floor. But for Za’Layah, how she does it is easy.

“I definitely have a lot of pain, but I just push through it,” she said. “I love basketball.”

Za’Layah’s passion, exuberance, character and will push her beyond her physical and medical limitations. She outworks others and embraces the challenges.

“It has to be a battle for her each time just to come out and play,” Montecalvo said.

Dr. Jan Grudziak, a pediatric orthopedist at Children’s Hospital who has treated Za’Layah since she was born, said it’s remarkable that the teen is playing basketball, let alone at a high level.

“Honestly, I don’t know how she’s doing it,” he said. “In order to run, you have to have cooperation between your joints and feet. Her feet are completely stiff.

“The ability to jump and run is severely limited if you lose the motion of the foot. Her motion is so limited – there is no sideway motion, no ability to absorb the shock. It’s amazing. She’s one tough cookie.”

For children born with fibular hemimelia, Za’Layah’s medical diagnosis, one of the options is amputation and prosthetics. But her parents, Clarence and Shatavia Edwards, instead chose surgeries.

“I couldn’t see myself making that decision for her,” said Shatavia Edwards. “If we had made that decision, would she be playing basketball today? Would she have limited herself and the things she is capable of?”

Thirteen surgeries later, Za’Layah has worked her way into an important role with the Lady Bucs, who qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs. Through 21 games, Za’Layah scored 144 points, averaging seven points per game. She led the team in scoring three games and has scored in double figures six times. She started 11 of 21 games.

Za’Layah can shoot the three-ball and is a solid ball handler.

“I honestly feel like I’m like the other players,” she said. “I feel like I can shoot and dribble and drive, and I love shooting threes.”

She’s a force opponents have to reckon with.

“She’s got this special way about her,” Montecalvo said. “Her positive demeanor and character and the way she carries herself is remarkable.

“Za’Layah could be sour and bitter. She’s just not. The girl has worked tirelessly on her ball skills. She’s a good shooter from the outside and has good three-point range, especially when she has space. I credit a lot of this to her incredible will.”

Za’Layah plays in constant pain, and game action creates fatigue. She uses ice packs and takes ibuprofen following games.

Grudziak said he wouldn’t advise Za’Layah to play basketball because the sport increases her risk of arthritis and other complications, but he supports her decision.

“She may or may not pay the price later on, but she is having fun, she is doing well,” the doctor said. “She is highly motivated, bright, always upbeat, and I’ve never heard her complain about anything. It’s really hard not to support her and root for her. We should all support her and her family.”

No one understands and appreciates that more than Montecalvo.

“Za’Layah never looks for a way out,” Montecalvo said. “She doesn’t want to come out. We watch out for her. She’s added so much to our team. She was a big contributor to our middle school team last year. I am a little surprised at how much she has contributed this season. But she’s always smiling and working. She’s created issues for our opponents.

“Sometimes I wonder why the hell she’s so open on the three-point line. Then you see her go inside and somehow work her way to the basket, make the shot and get fouled for a one and one. I just look at her sometimes and really do wonder how she does it.”

Hard to imagine

Clarence Edwards, Za’Layah’s father, has been an assistant coach for Chartiers-Houston’s boys team for seven years. He admits that what his daughter is capable of on a basketball court “is hard to imagine.”

He believes she is here for a purpose.

“I believe God put Za’Layah on this earth to do big things,” Edwards said. “I’m so happy she’s here because she inspires so many people.”

Basketball has always been part of Za’Layah’s life.

“My dad’s been a coach for as long as I can remember, and so when I was younger, we would go to all of his basketball games,” Za’Layah said. “It ran in the family, and I knew I was going to be a basketball player.”

It has never been easy, but her father never let Za’Layah use her physical challenges as an excuse.

“When she was younger, she’d get knocked to the ground,” he explained. “She took her licks and she would cry. She’d get up and I’d ask her if she really wanted to play. ‘If you do,’ I said, ‘wipe off your face and don’t use anything as an excuse.’”

Za’Layah said her father’s tough love has helped her mental toughness.

Said Clarence Edwards, “I actually started believing she could compete when she was in fourth grade. Za’Layah would actually play up (in age) and she did OK. I didn’t doubt that at some point she would play the high school level.”

Montecalvo marvels at her freshman surprise. She still wonders how Za’Layah is doing all these things.

But she’s come to rely on her, as has the team, which includes Za’Layah’s sister, Za’Mierah, a junior guard.

“I constantly check with her on dead balls, timeouts, and quarter breaks if she is all right,” Montecalvo said. “The answer is always the same, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’m good.’

In the spring, Za’Layah is scheduled to undergo another surgery, this time to remove a bracket in her knee. Doctors had inserted the bracket to slow growth to even out a discrepancy in leg lengths, which causes her hip pain and discomfort.

A desire to help others

Za’Layah, who also excels in the classroom, wants to become a nurse.

“I feel like I’m good with kids and with people in general, and I want to make people feel like they’ll be OK and that they will get better when they’re sick or have a physical problem,” she said. “I like to help.”

Shatavia Edwards tells her daughter often that she is amazing and strong.

“Through all of her trials and tribulations, she perseveres,” Shatavia Edwards added. “She has a kind heart.”

Za’Layah credits her parents for helping her feel comfortable with herself – her mother used to show people the little girl’s legs and feet and explain why they looked different, which built Za’Layah’s self-confidence.

Za’Layah said she wants to encourage people to never give up.

“I feel that people should not be afraid to just try, because they never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Keep pushing, even if it hurts, just push and you’ll see positive outcomes will happen.”

She recalled her game earlier this season against Bishop Canevin.

“I was in so much pain,” Za’Layah admitted. “But it was in the fourth quarter that I started making my shots and scoring points. So, don’t give up. You have to believe in yourself and you have to believe you can. Because you never know what’s possible.”

Doubts persist for Dem voters about female nominee in 2020

PLYMOUTH, N.H. – In a perfect world, Susan Stepp, a 73-year-old retiree, would be casting her vote for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, she says. But that won’t be happening.

“I am not sure a woman is the best candidate to go up against Trump,” Stepp said recently as she stood in the back of a conference room listening to tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang as part of her hunt for the best candidate to challenge the Republican incumbent.

Stepp’s concern has coursed through the Democratic primary for months, registering in polling, interviews and, now, the first votes cast. In Iowa’s caucuses last Monday, many Democrats did not prioritize breaking the gender barrier to the Oval Office and they viewed being a woman as a hindrance rather than an advantage in the race.

Only about one-third of Iowa caucusgoers backed a female candidate. Topping the caucus field were two men, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders,. Women were only slightly more likely than men to back one of the three women in the race, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,000 Iowa voters.

Most Iowa Democrats said it was important for a woman to be president in their lifetimes. But many voters, including about half of all women, said a female nominee would have a harder time beating Donald Trump in November.

“He will just use that against her, like he did Hillary,” Stepp said, looking back to Trump’s 2016 race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “He doesn’t debate. He just insults. I don’t think he would have that same effect if he went up against a strong man.” Stepp said she plans to vote for Sanders.

Those perceptions present an undeniable headwind for the women in the race, who have spent months making the case that a woman can win. As they seek success in New Hampshire, both Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must work to energize voters about the chance to make history and persuade them it is possible this year, in this race against this president.

“In 2020, we can and should have a woman for president,” Warren said at a CNN town hall this past week, days after taking third in Iowa. Klobuchar came in fifth. The Associated Press has not called a winner in the Iowa caucus because the race is too close to call.

Iowans appeared open to that message. Most Democratic voters in the state, 72%, said they thought it is important for the U.S. to elect a woman president in their lifetimes, and that included roughly two-thirds of men.

But most were resolved to put it off for another election. That was true of men and women. The survey found 34% of women voted for Warren, Klobuchar or the longshot candidacy of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, compared with 28% of men.

Overall, many Democratic voters thought it would be harder for a woman to beat Trump. About half of women said they thought a female nominee would have a harder time, compared with about 4 in 10 men. Men who harbored that concern were significantly less likely to vote for a woman than a man.

Experts say the findings are in line with traditional patterns in voting by gender – women usually don’t coalesce around one of their own. “Nobody’s going to win an election by unifying women because women are not a unified bloc,” said Kathy Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “There’s no evidence that suggests for us that women candidates vote much more for women candidates than men.”

Analysts say it’s no surprise that women express more anxiety about a woman defeating Trump, given that through personal experience, they’re familiar with the barriers of sexism.

“Women are more likely to have experienced or observed gender discrimination or sexism,” said Jill Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Notably, experts said, there’s no data showing that women underperform or outperform men in general elections. But Lawless noted that having to fight that perception that a woman cannot win may actually work against the female candidates in this race.

“Anytime they’re trying to convince voters that a woman can beat Donald Trump, they’re not talking about health care or foreign affairs,” she said.

Warren spent months trying to avoid the gender issue, seeing questions about pervasive sexism in politics as a lose-lose proposition. Either she acknowledged that being a woman created all kinds of challenges because of inherent bias, and appeared to be whining about it, or she said it wasn’t a problem and would therefore seem out of touch, she told aides.

But, since the New Year, Warren has shifted her strategy dramatically, taking the issue head on. She raised it directly in asserting that Sanders had suggested a woman couldn’t win the White House, and, after they clashed about it during a debate in Iowa, refused to shake his hand on national television.

In the final days before Iowa, Warren began talking about a woman’s electability. She now repeats at every campaign stop that women have performed better in recent elections than men, underscoring the role of female candidates who helped Democrats retake control of the House in 2018.

“The world has changed since 2016,” Warren said during a rally this past week in Keene, N.H. “Women have been outperforming men in competitive races. Can women win? You bet women can win.”

Pushpa Mudan, a 68-year-old retired physician, is one of those anxious women who’s sticking to her guns. She attended a Warren rally on Wednesday at a community college in Nashua, N.H.

She said she’s seen Warren three times in recent months, and also attended a recent Klobuchar rally, and is still deciding between the two, though she’ll likely pick Warren in the primary. Mudan said electing a woman as president is a top issue for her, but she’s afraid that none will be able to compete with Trump.

“I think this country, for considering itself an advanced country, is very far behind the rest of the world by not having a woman at the highest position,” she said. “Places like Pakistan, Turkey have had a female president. Not here. But the way Trump puts them down, it is hard for any to make it, I think. It’s going to be very hard.”