Peoples has more hills to climb
DANVILLE — Ninenty-three students attend Schlarman Academy, a Catholic school built at the highest point in Danville around what was once the mansion of W. G. Hartshorn, an owner of the Electric Coal Company in town.
Three of those students will likely play women’s Division I basketball, a number that was larger before Duke commit Arieal Scott left the Hilltoppers and transferred to Urbana last summer.
One of those students is Anaya Peoples, a jovial sophomore with a bright smile. The 5-foot-10 point guard happens to be one of the top girls’ basketball players in the country, too, in her class.
Peoples has 30 Division I offers, the first of which came the summer before eighth grade. ESPN ranks her 16th in the Class of 2019. ProspectNation puts her third. She was one of four sophomores named to the 50-player preseason Naismith Award watch list for national player of the year.
“I think she’s going to be a program changer, to be honest with you,” said Stephanie Roach, Peoples’ coach at Indianapolis-based AAU team Best Choice. “Every time I see this kid on the floor, she gets better.”
While basketball has expanded her world, life at a tiny school is all Peoples knows. She’s gone to Schlarman since preschool.
All of her classes are within a few hundred yards, between which she walks through the mansion and up the stairs to her tidy locker.
Several of her basketball teammates have also gone to Schlarman for years, including fellow Division I recruit Capria Brown, a freshman.
“I love knowing everybody and seeing everybody in the halls,” said Peoples, who has 23 classmates in her graduating class. “We’re all like a family here.”
During her sophomore season, Peoples led a team entirely made of freshmen and sophomores to a 21-6 record by averaging 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.7 steals and 4.1 assists per game on her way to News-Gazette Player of the Year honors.
And while her basketball career has taken Peoples across the country, Schlarman has incubated her talents for most of her life.
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Keith Peoples had no grand plan when he took 6-year-old Anaya to Shebby Gymnasium at Schlarman once a week during practices for the Hilltoppers’ girls’ basketball team, then coached by Anaya’s mother, Tricia Peoples.
“Personally speaking, it was just a matter of me carving out time within my day to spend time with my daughter, to develop a stronger relationship with her at a very young age,” said Keith Peoples, who played at Sam Houston State in the mid-1990s. “We had a routine that, every Friday, I would pick her up and we would walk over to the gymnasium. We would spend about 45 minutes just laughing and talking about her day, shooting baskets, and she would look forward to it every Friday. Then afterwards, we would go get ice cream.”
By second grade, though, he noticed his daughter had uncommon skills. Not only did she find joy playing basketball that she didn’t when her parents took her to a few dance and gymnastics practices, but she had hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness rare for a 7-year-old.
Keith Peoples researched club teams and called Indianapolis Best Choice, asking Roach if it would be possible for his second-grade daughter to play on a team with mostly fourth-graders.
“The program director stated to me, ‘We may want to wait a while, because the kids we have on our team don’t double-dribble, and they don’t travel with the ball,’ ” said Peoples, a story Roach corroborated. “ ‘She just may not be up to par. We may want to give it some time.’ We were cut before we had a chance to try out.
“It was a complete misjudgment. I can understand the comment … but she knew how to play the game. We had fun, we spent time together, but we focused on the fundamentals and the roles of the game.”
Keith Peoples did call back the next year, and Roach invited Anaya to a tournament. She’d play in a game, and they’d see how she fit.
It went well. So well that she joined the team and never left.
“She could dribble, she could pass, she didn’t travel with the ball,” Keith Peoples said. “One thing I really remember is her running full-speed and catching the ball in stride, taking one or two dribbles and then make a layup. That’s pretty impressive for a third-grader.”
By the time she was in the seventh grade, she was playing on the Best Choice high school team. And that’s when her recruiting took off.
The first scholarship offer came from Evansville the summer before her eighth-grade year. Then Illinois came in. Soon after, Dayton, Iowa, Purdue and Michigan State offered.
“I wasn’t surprised that it happened,” Keith Peoples said. “I was surprised that it happened so soon.”
At first, Roach wasn’t sure what level of prospect Anaya Peoples would turn into. After all, she was always one of the smaller players on the floor as a seventh-grader, and Roach thought she might be done growing.
But then, the growth spurt began. Now, she is 5 feet, 10 inches with her shoes off, making her a tall point guard with long arms.
“I was like, ‘OK, she may be a small player,’ ” Roach said. “She may have a great high school career. … I’ve just been amazed. Now, she’s a long guard. That’s what college coaches love about her, that she’s got this long body, and she’s got this ability to handle the ball the way she does.”
Peoples has offers from 10 schools in the Big Ten, six in the SEC, four in the Big East, three from the Missouri Valley and two each from the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12.
She’s visited 16 schools, including UConn. Coach Geno Auriemma has yet to offer her a scholarship, but she did stay overnight with several players.
She has a whiteboard at home on which she writes the qualities she finds important in a school and rates schools on each category after each visit. She’s seen practice facilities, learned what she likes about campuses, knows which schools have maids in their dorms and which living situations are more paltry.
“Taking the visits, now that it’s time to start putting things in order, allows her to have the visual of the school, allows us to interact with the coaches and see how she connects with their personalities,” Tricia Peoples said. “It allows her to watch the games and see their style of play. It allows her to watch their practices and know what to expect. It allows her to see the campus and the surrounding area where you’ll be spending four years of your life. Those are all important things to know when making such a big decision.”
And she knows that her recruitment is only going to become more hectic come September, when coaches are allowed to call her directly.
“These college coaches can put a lot of pressure on these kids,” said Roach, whose daughter, junior Katlyn Gilbert, committed to Notre Dame in mid-September of last year. “You have some colleges who are very respectful, won’t call your kids during school, won’t call them at all times of night. Then, there’s other college coaches who want to let the kid know that they really want them, so they do things that are sometimes borderline disrespectful. Whatever that first day is, I guarantee you there are coaches that are going to call her at midnight.”
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Basketball will take Anaya Peoples far.
But at Schlarman, the Peoples have built equity. Keith Peoples is in his second stint as Schlarman’s coach. After taking over for his pregnant wife during the 2007-08 season, he coached for two seasons. He took over again in 2011, and he’s coached both middle-school teams during that time. Between the seventh- and eighth-grade teams, the Hilltoppers have won four state championships since 2012, and Anaya’s teams ran off a 90-game winning streak.
Just a few years ago, the small locker room behind the gym was a dirty, dingy room with a concrete floor. Over the years, Keith Peoples has devised a plan to fix it up, partially paid for by donations from the team’s fundraisers and with contributions from parents.
Along with various helpers he cobbled together after Sunday pickup games at the school gym, Keith painted the walls and laid carpet. Another parent installed the hardwood in the middle, where the team has impromptu dance parties before games.
Peoples brought in the television on the side of the room used to watch film, and another parent donated the whiteboard. Various signs with motivational sayings adorn the walls, ideas Keith Peoples took while visiting colleges with his daughter.
One glaring omission is actual lockers, which he intends to add soon. His goal, he said, is to create a college-like atmosphere for his team.
When Anaya reached high school, the Hilltoppers seemed destined for greatness. In Class 1A, their talent was unmatched, with Scott and Peoples along with All-Area senior Sierra Bell and then-freshman Division I recruit Sydney Gouard. Schlarman, though, was upset in its super-sectional by Seton Academy.
With a team formed entirely of freshmen and sophomores this year, the Hilltoppers lost a heartbreaking 48-47 sectional semifinal to Heyworth. Annawan, which the Hilltoppers beat 61-53, went on to win the state title.
“Nobody wants to feel that again,” Anaya said. “And since we’re only sophomores and freshmen, we don’t expect to feel it.”
On the floor, Peoples looks like a polished player. Her game isn’t solely built on speed and athleticism, but on skill and basketball intelligence.
Her father sees room for improvement during the two years she has left to lead the tiny school on top of the hill to a state championship.
“We’re not a finished product, and Anaya is by no means a finished product,” Keith Peoples said. “But we are running out of next years. It must happen this upcoming season.”
And beyond her skill and athleticism, he thinks she has the personality to lead them there.
“One thing I hear from (college coaches) is, she’s such a humble kid, and she’s such a great teammate, and she’s very, very unselfish when it comes to playing the game of basketball,” Keith Peoples said. “She inspires those that play around her.”