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Audrey Carter huddles with her Bridgeton High School girls basketball team during a game last month. The Bulldogs went 7-17 in their first year with Carter as their coach, an improvement from their 4-22 the previous season.

When Javon Childers learned she was getting a new coach this season, she was disappointed - and slightly confused. This would make three coaches in three years for Childers and her Bridgeton Senior High School girls basketball teammates.

"I was just thrown off by the whole new coaches thing," she said.

But all that stress was alleviated when Childers met Audrey Carter, the woman taking over the program. The previous two coaches had been male.

"She understands us better than our male coaches did," Childers, 17, of Bridgeton said. "She can relate to us. She understands us and it's great how close we already are."

Carter's hiring coincides with a recent rise in the number of women coaching girls basketball - a result of the specialized nature of today's athletics and the desire to remain in the sport even after one's playing days are over.

For years, local schools had only a handful of female girls basketball coaches. In 2005, there were only four among the 25 high schools that are in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean County. That number also includes Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, Gloucester County, which is a member of the Cape-Atlantic League.

The number of female coaches rose to nine among 26 schools in 2007 and to 11 among 27 schools this year or 41 percent, including Cedar Creek, which opened in 2010.

According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, about a third of the state's 406 high schools have a female girls basketball coach.

"I think with junior high and high school, there are so many issues girls are facing," said Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky, who teaches in the sports management department. "One of the things that research tells us, girls and young women sees themselves in two roles. One as young women, and the other as an athlete. Males tend to see themselves as a whole. "

Southern Regional coach Kathy Snyder got her start in 1979. She didn't want to quit the sport she loved, and coaching was a way for her to keep her competitive edge. She played basketball in high school and college and she couldn't see it all ending when she graduated from Trenton State. Coaching was the obvious choice and it fueled her passion to be involved in sports.

But when she looked along the sideline, she couldn't see any other female coaches in the Shore Conference.

"I didn't feel like an outsider even though it was predominately men that were coaching," Snyder said. "Little by little it has changed, but still, in coaching, you run across more male coaches than you do female coaches."

Family first

Snyder, a physical education teacher at Southern, has talked to other basketball coaches about the difficulties of being a mother and a coach. Snyder, 55, who also coaches field hockey, considers herself lucky that her children also attended Southern Regional. She got to coach her two daughters without being pulled in several directions.

"I still see a lot of females having difficulty making the commitment," said Snyder, who credits her husband with being amazingly supportive. "The time you need to put into coaching is tremendous. I think in a lot of cases, females were having families, had young kids and just didn't want to put in that time."

The call to be with family is a great one and Snyder has difficulty finding assistant coaches who can spare enough time.

Carter, 33, has a 12-year-old daughter and knows the rigors of being a single mom, a coach and holding down a full-time job. But she doesn't see motherhood as a detriment to her coaching. She looks at it as a way to teach her child how to be a strong, independent woman.

"It's going to be worth it in the end," said Carter, an attendance officer in the Bridgeton school system. "I'm there for the girls as much as I am there for my daughter. It is a lot, but this is our family."

Making a comeback

Carter had male coaches pretty much her whole life.

While she had good experiences in high school and at Cumberland County College, it also made her yearn for a different environment. She's happy that her players can come to her with anything.

Childers says she has looked to Carter for help, even school work.

"As a female coach the girls have more confidence in talking to you," Carter said. "I've been in their shoes. I played in high school and college. I can steer them in the right direction, talk about girl issues. The girls seem to respond great to that."

Snyder hopes the trend toward hiring more female coaches can continue -as do many others - but she sees it as a way to help nurture girls.

"If you're raising daughters you would like them to have a connection," Snyder said. "They are going to spend a lot of time with other people. I am not saying guys don't do a good job. I just know you would like your children to have other people they can associate with. There are a lot of things that go on between girls and female coach that a guy is not going understand."

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