Ahrens increases awareness of mental health for student athletes
You might recognize the word Naismith if you’re a fan of sports or have some knowledge of the sports world.
James Naismith, founder of the University of Kansas basketball program, is also credited as the person who invented the sport of basketball. His name graces the award given to the best college and high-school players in both men’s and women’s basketball every season.
The Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award – now in its fourth year – honors athletes who have shown courage on and off the floor.
This season, Delran High School senior Riley Ahrens was named a national finalist for the Courage Award after the 2021-’22 season, in honor of boys basketball player Mason Williams, who was 17 when he died in January 2022.
“I had no idea,” Aherns said of the nomination. “I didn’t even know what the award was or that I was a finalist until I saw an article on Twitter and I was tagged in a tweet. Then, I started reading about it more, and honestly, I was just confused, but when I was told more about it, I was just really excited.”
Ahrens helped bring the girls and boys basketball teams and the entire high-school community closer to remember Williams and further advocate for mental-health awareness, especially in high-school athletics. His sudden passing also prompted Ahrens to take the initiative and let students, teammates, parents and everyone in the Delran community know that “It’s OK to not be OK.”
The team adopted the statement as a motto for the remainder of the season and going forward.
“For her to have the maturity level and the foresight to reach out to the different schools and have them help to support suicide and mental-health awareness, it was a testament to her and how much she knew that rocked the community,” Delran basketball coach Jon Repece noted.
Ahrens also encouraged other schools to remember Williams by wearing purple somewhere on their uniforms during Delran home and away games.
Aherns’ play on the court spoke as loudly as her activism: She reached 1,000 career points for the Bears as she averaged a career-high 16.1 PPG (points per game), 9.2 RPG (rebounds per game), 3.5 blocks a game and 2.3 steals a game.
She finished her career with 135 three-pointers, nearly 600 rebounds and more than 210 each in blocks and steals.
“(Riley) was an extension of the coaching staff,” Repece explained. “She never took a practice off and she set the tone every day, and honestly, she relished that idea.
“She literally led this team.”
Aherns’ softball coach, Danielle Carlotto, nominated her for the award, and the teen was one of 10 finalists nationwide.
“I was sent an email and it was in one of the attachments, and right away I thought of her,” Carlotto recalled. “… Riley and her teammates continued to push through the season while honoring Mason throughout the season. She has continued to advocate for teen mental health throughout her high-school athletic career.”
Students in Colorado and California were named winners of the award on March 7. And although Ahrens did not ultimately win the Naismith award, she hopes the experience will “bring more attention to mental-health awareness in general, especially with athletes.
“I hope this will help prioritize mental health so that athletes are as strong physically as they are mentally when out playing,” she said.