DANBURY - Four years ago, a young girl showed up at the Danbury PAL building to try out for an eighth-grade travel team.

Although she didn't shoot or dribble very well, her potential lit up the gym.

Back then, Sonya Perkins was an unknown, a raw talent bursting with potential who still hadn't played any organized basketball.

"We don't know where she came from. We'd never seen her before," recalled
Bob Guerrera , a city police officer and PAL coach. "Her athleticism at the tryout, she was off the charts only because she was so strong and quick, but she was very unskilled."

Perkins' unrefined game was a product of the playground.

"I always played when I was younger with my older brothers. I always played with the boys. I was basically just a street ball player, not an organized player," she said.

"I needed them to come together to make my game better and that was hard for me because I didn't understand organized ball. As I began to learn the game more and more I began to love it more and more."

By working hard, Perkins made herself into a solid, all-around team player. Now a Danbury High senior captain, she has enjoyed a terrific senior season as the Hatters' most versatile and invaluable performer.

Perkins is averaging 12.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 1.5 assists for Danbury, which reached the FCIAC semifinals last week before losing to eventual champion Trinity Catholic .

"It's been great because I love the girls and I love Jackie," she said. "It's become more personal this year."

The Hatters take a 17-5 record into the Class LL state tournament. Seeded seventh, they host No. 26 Shelton tonight in a first-round game.

A muscular but undersized small forward, Perkins is the team's No. 1 option on offense and its best perimeter defender.

"You don't want her on you man-to-man," Guerrera said.

She also brings the ball upcourt against pressure and isn't afraid to mix it up under the boards even though she's only 5-foot-4.

"My height doesn't faze me. My heart is as big as this world when it comes to basketball and no one will ever take that passion away from me," Perkins said.

Perkins' determination to succeed also helped her become a respectful young lady off the court.

"She was the kind of kid you never minded helping," said Guerrera, who would drive Perkins to and from practice.


Perkins grew up on Beaver Street, in a rough area known for drugs and violence during the mid-1990s. She became a ward of the state and lived for 10 years with a cousin who is a single parent.

"I didn't live in the best environment," Perkins said. "I didn't grow up around positive things. Basketball was the only thing that made me happy. The thought of having that taken away pained me and I didn't want that to happen."

Her cousin was strict and taught Perkins and her siblings discipline and other valuable lessons. Academics came first, before basketball. No wonder she is taking honors and advanced placement courses.

"I do respect (my cousin) for that because it has made me the better person that I am today. She taught us responsibility. I know deep down despite all the stuff that happened this past summer that she'll always love me and that I'll always love her," Perkins said.

Over the summer, Perkins moved in with Jackie DiNardo and her husband, Bob, who have become her legal guardians.

"I felt like I made the better move for me," she said. "I still keep in contact with that side of the family."

That includes her parents. Her father comes to the games; her mom, who is wheelchair-bound following a car accident, makes it when she can.

"I always talk to my mom and I talk to my dad," she said.


Perkins paid her dues as a ninth-grader with the freshman team, discovering that talent alone isn't enough to earn a roster spot in coach DiNardo's program.

"I wouldn't let her come up," DiNardo explained. "We had to get her to understand this is a privilege. And just because you have a special (physical) gift doesn't mean you can't be nice and be someone everyone wants to be around."

Perkins got the message.

"Your teammates become like a family to you and that's what these girls are, they're like a family to me. The way I was acting, it wasn't just hurting me it was hurting them, too," she said.

"I had the game but I had so much attitude. Jackie and Mr. DiNardo wouldn't move me up to jayvee or varsity if I didn't control my attitude. I loved the game and I didn't want anything to take it away from me so I began to control my actions and my attitude."

Devoted to the sport and determined to improve, she played AAU and in off-season leagues around the area. She studied the game on television, picking up moves from players like Cappie Pondexter of Rutgers.

"She found a dream, something she loved more than herself and she wanted to be a part of it," DiNardo said.

Perkins averaged 5.3 points as a sophomore, shooting 40 percent from the foul line. A slasher who draws a lot of fouls, she realized the importance of becoming a better free throw shooter. So during a boys summer camp at Danbury High, she asked former Newtown High girls coach Tim Salem for help.

"She just showed up and wanted to help out. She was there every single day waiting for me (at 8 o'clock in the morning) to work with her. I was really taken by that. It's rare these days to see that kind of dedication. She's worked at my camp every year since," said Salem, now an assistant principal at Danbury High.

Better form and constant practice paid dividends. She's been a 70 percent foul shooter each of the past two seasons, going 184 of 261 overall, with the most attempts among area players.

Somehow, she has even found time to play goalkeeper on the soccer team in the fall and be a sprinter on the track team in the spring.

"Sports in general kept me off the streets. It kept me busy," she said.

Perkins couldn't have known the ramifications when she finally heeded the advice of a friend and went to that Danbury PAL tryout. Four years later, thanks to the help of family and friends and her own willingness to work hard, she is more than a standout player.

"It's amazing she's been able to overcome the personal adversity, the things she's had to overcome," Salem said. "To become the person, the student and the athlete she is at this time is truly a credit to her. She's done the majority of it on her own."

Sonya Perkins didn't want to become a "statistic." Instead, she's a survivor, a success story and a role model.