MARIA SANSONE, A SPORTS REPORTER at WJET-TV in Erie, Pa., is seated behind the news desk, taping her intro to a segment about a local junior high school basketball team. Her producer, Mike Gallagher, is lying on his stomach beside her chair, just out of camera range. Producers who work with Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer never have to prostrate themselves like this, but Gallagher has a good reason: At age 12, Maria—probably the youngest TV sports reporter in the country—doesn't have legs long enough to reach the TelePrompTer pedal, so Gallagher works it for her by hand.

The producer discovered Maria in June 1992 when he interviewed her after a kids' slam-dunk contest in which she took part. "What impressed me," he says, "was that she had the poise and confidence to ham it up. That's what you need."

Gallagher suggested that Maria be given a regular spot reporting children's sports activities, and starting last September she has been doing two or three pieces a week. Soon, though, she began to broaden her coverage, interviewing such grown-up stars as Michael Jordan (she asked him if he got the basketball blues at season's end), Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. During her chat with His Airness—in the locker room after a Cleveland Cavaliers game—Maria was much taken with NBA sneaker size. "I could get both of my feet into one shoe," she says.

Maria, whose parents operate a formal-wear shop, is a straight-A student at St. Andrews Catholic School in Erie. Although she has always wanted to be a dermatologist, she is starling to think about a career in TV, and her parents are negotiating a syndicated half-hour kids' interview show.

Maria is already developing the sangfroid of a celebrity. She was in New York City for an appearance on Good Morning America when she met 11-year-old Zachery Bryan (Brad on Home Improvement), who invited her to a taping of his show. Did she develop a little crush, maybe? Maria crinkles her nose. "He's my pen pal," she says. "I don't drool over anybody."