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From the Bronx to Bell Buckle

By Mark McGee - For the T-G
Posted 4/8/23

BELL BUCKLE – She still hasn’t petted a cow, but she has risen from the gritty playgrounds of the Bronx and New York City to stardom at The Webb School in rural Bell Buckle.

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From the Bronx to Bell Buckle


BELL BUCKLE – She still hasn’t petted a cow, but she has risen from the gritty playgrounds of the Bronx and New York City to stardom at The Webb School in rural Bell Buckle.

With a stop at Trenton, New Jersey Catholic Academy in between it has been a long, winding but successful road for Angelica Velez. She was looking for a place to transfer to after her sophomore season in Trenton, as the school was facing financial troubles and potential closure.

Former Webb basketball standout player Lashae Dwyer, who had played on AAU teams with Velez, and had great success with the Feet, was part of the impetus to Bell Buckle.

Joining Velez at Webb was Aurora Sanchez-Almon, a 6-foot-4 forward, and Aalyah Del Rosario, a 6-foot-6 forward, both teammates at Trenton.

“She has seen the world in a very real way,” Webb girls basketball coach Matt Shewmake said. “It has made her tough.

“I had never seen Angelica play before she came here, but I knew about her. She was very highly recruited.”

When he first saw her play in-person he was impressed with what he saw from the 5-7 point guard.

“She played the right way already,” Shewmake said. “There was not a lot to fix or correct.

“Angelica was very coachable. She was terrific from the beginning.”

As the point guard for the past two years she helped the Feet to two consecutive Division II-A State Championships. The Feet have won the state title all three years Shewmake has been the head coach.

Velez, honored by the TSSAA as Division II-A Miss Basketball this year, has signed to play basketball for Louisiana State University, the newly crowned NCAA women’s basketball champion.Velez averaged 11.2 points per game. 9.8 assists per game and three rebounds per game.

“I was shocked to win,” Velez said. “I never really look at winning awards.”

Anyone who visits New York City is awestruck by the size of the buildings, the millions of people and the energy. For Velez her trip from the “Big Apple” to the Middle Tennessee countryside was an eye opener of a different sort.

“I was on the plane on my way here,” Velez said. “I was looking outside my window and just saw grass. I was wondering how I was going to do it. Driving her from the airport I saw nothing but cows.”

She admits it is “cool” to be from a big city like New York, but has embraced the rural life.

“I love the green grass and the air,” Velez said. “Just being here gives me such a peace of mind. Coming here has changed my entire life. It just opened up my world.

“It was definitely a bit of an adjustment from living in the city and coming from two different schools. At first it was a big change which is true whenever something is new. But the people here just made it so much easier.”

Point guard perfection

Velez admits her first passion was football. She was the only girl on her team, playing quarterback in youth league teams in the Bronx. Playing a position where distributing the ball is a key to success, the transition to being a basketball point guard was a natural move.

No one is perfect, but Shewmake can’t find any holes in Velez’s game and rates her as a key reason for Webb’s success. Most scouts can’t either.

Effective point guards are the centerpiece of successful basketball teams. On the high school level that is definitely true because the point guard handles the ball so much. If wrong decisions are made, then the team is not going to be successful. Velez makes the right choices on the court distributing the ball to her teammates with ease as the result of her great vision on the court.

Velez can shoot a jump shot from almost anywhere on the court, hitting 36 percent from beyond the 3-point arc this season.

“She is a leader,” Shewmake said. “She is vocal. She is tough. She is a great ball handler. For a point guard I can’t think of one who is a whole lot better. There are a lot of good New York point guards.

“She is confident. She has a swagger about her that makes her the one everyone else wants to follow. She is a competitor and that is the most special thing about her. She really gets what it takes to win. She is kind of an extension of our coaching staff on the floor just for accountability for everybody on the floor and accountability for herself.”

Velez has a simple, but effective approach to how she plays the game. She puts impressive numbers, but she is more concerned with helping her teammates be the best they can be.

“The way I play the game is to make everyone around me better,” Velez said.

She enjoys carrying the weight of responsibility being counted on as a leader can place on a person’s shoulders. “I don’t think I am unbeatable,” Velez said. “I am very humble, but I do know my value and my worth.

Growing up in the Bronx has allowed me to become a better leader and a better person. “I have this leadership ability that God has given me and it has just kept growing and growing. Like it or not, people will take my lead. When I was young, I didn’t know how to deal with it, but I know now no one can lead a team like I can.”

Playground tough

Velez was 11 when she first had a basketball in her hand. She competed on the playgrounds with boys and not only honed her skills, but developed a competitive toughness in a city where basketball is king, and the games are nose-to-nose gritty.

“Playing in New York, no matter who I played against, I always made sure the boys played hard against me,” Velez said. “They would try to beat me and I would say go ahead and try.

“I just had a hunger. Whenever you play basketball on a playground in the Bronx everyone is going to play hard. You might get hurt, but I didn’t back down. I just learned so much about playing fundamental basketball.”

Life on the playground courts was even more challenging for Velez because she had to prove herself to boys who weren’t all that thrilled about facing her.

“I played on the boy’s team in junior high,” Velez said. “Competing with the boys made me step up. I didn’t want to get ‘beaten up on’ so it made me tough.”

Growing up Velez always loved being outside. No one handed her a basketball. She just picked one up and started playing.

“My Dad would always want me to stay inside and watch television with him,” Velez said. “All I wanted to do was to go play basketball.

“I used to go out around eight at night and not come back home until midnight playing basketball. I would sometimes go to the park at 5 a.m. and stay there all day. I love it. All I always wanted to do was go outside and play basketball.”

LSU bound

Velez was sporting a purple LSU hoodie on campus this week. She, and her teammate Aalyah Del Rosario, a 6-foot-6 post player, are part of the 2023 recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country. Del Rosario was a McDonald’s All-American this season.

The New York City playgrounds are filled with players who could star on college or even NBA teams, but the majority of them don’t get the breaks they need to move on. Velez realizes what it means for her to become a college player and perhaps an WNBA star.

“If you are in the Bronx, you may not have the hope that you can make it this far,” Velez said. “It is a different world growing up in New York and in the Bronx. It is really hard to get out of there.

“To get out of that you have to have the right people around you to help you realize the possibilities. Just having good people around me was such a big thing for me.”

Velez was in Dallas, Texas last week to watch her team win the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.

“Watching the games and looking around at the atmosphere and the possibility of me one day playing on that stage was so emotional, “Velez said. “It was mind blowing.

“I’m definitely looking forward to playing at LSU. From my standpoint it is a blessing.”

LSU coach Kim Mulkey is expecting Velez to be the point guard of the future for the Tigers. Shewmake has been impressed with how LSU has formed a relationship with Velez.

“They are always FaceTiming each other and group chatting and talking,” Shewmake said. “They are so close as a team.

“They have followed our team and what we do. You can already see a very tight-knit family-like atmosphere there. Hopefully Angelica and Aayla will be able to take some of the values from here to LSU.”

Six members of the Webb team have signed with schools from the “Power Five” conferences. In addition to Velez and Del Rosario, guard Bree Robinson will play for Michigan State, forward Lauren Rust has signed with Pitt, forward Rhema Collins is heading to Ole Miss and forward Aurora Sanchez-Almon has signed with Miami.

It has been a busy time for Velez, but before she leaves for college Shewmake has one more thing he wants her to do.

Shewmake said, “Before she leaves school I want her to pet a cow.”