Marquette, Mich. (WJMN) – For the past four years, the Level UP Express AAU basketball program has given girls from all over the U.P. an opportunity to sharpen their skills and compete during the high school basketball offseason.

“We have girls from, pretty much, the west end to the east end. It really makes me happy that we have girls that want to travel this far and be apart of something that’s great. Be apart of a group that just supports one another. We’re just another support system for the girls to compete and to hopefully make high school basketball better,” said Mariah Dunham, the owner & coach of Level UP Express.

Level UP Express coaches focus on developing and preparing their athletes for both the high school basketball season and the college level.

Girls get a taste of what college practice is like and get more exposure at AAU tournaments which could lead to more scholarship opportunities.

“They get that instant ‘oh, this is what it’s like. It’s fast pace. We don’t take as many breaks, all the drills are college drills that we do. They learn a ton about what it takes to be a college athlete and what it looks like. I also have college athletes come and that are coaches. And then from my perspective, I like to tell them exactly what coaches are looking for. So that when they do go to high school or they go to these tournaments they know exactly what they need to work on,” said Dunham.

For the athletes, the AAU experience is valuable to their growth as players. They get to face off with the best of the best the U.P. has to offer, gaining more confidence with each practice.

“It’s huge. It’s like getting another season in. You really get to build on your skills and work on fundamentals and just play smarter basketball,” said Elise Besonen, a senior on the Ewen Trout Creek girls basketball team.

“So, it’s definitely a lot different from high school. Normally you would get a group of girls together on a high school team that doesn’t want to be there. But here everyone wants to be here, you have to pay to play. The competition is a lot more intense and everyone pushes each other to play harder and get better as well,” said Megan Crow of Gladstone who is getting ready to play at Grand Valley State.

Due to practice restrictions, the team has had to ditch the hardwood for the outdoor blacktop, but they are not letting that stop them from playing the sport they’re all so passionate about.

I know for shooters especially, moving outdoors is slightly difficult because you get some wind out here. But, it’s not too bad, really,” said Besonen.

“You definatley get in shape quicker and faster playing outside because of the heat and it’s harder with the rims and everything because they are not made for normal basketball, they are used to resist dunking and everything. But honestly, I really don’t see that much of a difference besides the heat,” added Crow.

“We’re playing the sport we love. We’re around people we love. This is just a great opportunity for us. I don’t want to take not having a gym and Covid to be an excuse. I think that we should use this as an elevation and we should use this to our advantage. I think if you can play on blacktop, you can play indoors. Also, let’s utilize the parks. I mean, this place doesn’t really get utilized and I think it’s great. People drive by and they stop and they watch for a little bit. It’s just great to have the girls in public and let the people see their faces and it’s a really great thing,” concluded Dunham.