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Oklahoma Christian Academy’s women’s varsity squad takes a team photo.
Photo provided by Meredith Graham

Team finds the good in a tough, tough season

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EDMOND, Okla. — This isn’t “Hoosiers” — a feel-good story about a small-town basketball team overcoming steep odds to win the state title.

In fact, the Lady Eagles of Oklahoma Christian Academy went 0-14 this season, losing by scores of 67-21, 43-11 and 85-10.

But their story is every bit as inspiring as that of the fictional Indiana team coached by Gene Hackman.

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OCA, associated with Churches of Christ (and attended and loved by both of my daughters), is going through a growth spurt.

Enrollment is at a record-high 560, but a lot of the increase is in the lower grades. Sometimes there aren’t enough student athletes to field teams. We haven’t had a varsity football team for a couple of years. I miss the cold bleachers, warm hot dogs and Friday night lights.

The Lady Eagles in action.

The Lady Eagles in action.

We almost didn’t have a varsity women’s basketball team, either. There were only two returning players. Unlike football, volleyball and other sports, high school basketball needs teams for men and women. They usually play one right after the other, so it’s tough to schedule opponents when you have only a men’s team, said Jennifer Hayden, who started teaching and coaching at OCA this school year.

Not fielding a team also could hurt next year’s team, said Jeremy Román, athletic director and head coach of the men’s basketball team. “When a team cancels their season, many of the teams on your current schedule (boys and girls) will drop you,” he said, “and you have to start over from scratch to find games the following year.”

OCA needed players, fast. So teachers started shoulder-tapping athletes in other sports. When Gracie Graham’s volleyball season ended, her mom, English teacher Meredith Graham, asked Gracie to help with basketball practice.

Gracie, a senior, thought she’d just be scrimmaging with the players.

“But I ended up liking it,” she said. “Well, maybe not liking it. … It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.”

She agreed to play in a couple of games if they needed her. “And they needed me every game,” she said.

Another volleyball player, freshman Hope Glavan, described basketball as “not, like, a sport I hated.” So she joined, too.

Coach Hayden scraped together a squad — some of whom had rarely touched a basketball — and started working on fundamentals as the first games approached. Some of the Lady Eagles’ opponents went easy on them, but others “just would not care,” Gracie Graham said. “They would do a full-court press, which was really hard on us because we’re like, ‘We barely know what we’re doing anyway!’”

Oklahoma Christian Academy’s women’s varsity squad takes a team photo.

Oklahoma Christian Academy’s women’s varsity squad takes a team photo.

Enduring the opposing teams’ fans was just as tough. Some would react in amazement when OCA scored, yelling, “they finally made one!” and the like. More than once, players left the court in tears.

But they kept coming back.

Between games, they’d find ways to encourage each other — even if it meant saying, “Keep going! We’re almost done!” Gracie Graham said. “Four games left! Three games left!”

As they endured loss after loss, Glavan said, “we learned to be able to lean on each other — and on the people around us.”

Megan Rivera drives down the court during a Lady Eagles home game.

Megan Rivera drives down the court during a Lady Eagles home game.

While their opponents’ fans were mock-cheering when the Lady Eagles scored, OCA’s student section was going berserk.

“When any of the girls who had never made a basket scored,” Meredith Graham said, “I mean, you would have thought it was the state playoffs.”

“When any of the girls who had never made a basket scored, I mean, you would have thought it was the state playoffs.”

Senior Evan Ashworth was one of the ringleaders. He consulted his social studies teacher (and basketball superfan) Ben Meaders to develop chants and cheers for the team.

“We focused on the good we saw,” Ashworth said. For example, “Gracie’s not bragging on herself enough. She made so many 3’s. When Gracie made a 3, we went insane — and when Berkeley (Pok), toward the end of the season, made her first point. If you had seen Berkeley when she started the season and then when she made that 3, it was like she had grown so much for somebody who had joined last-minute.”

Maybe it’s not the best thing for a Christian school student to confess, Ashworth said, but he enjoyed watching the players get aggressive when contesting the ball — especially Bella Graham, Gracie’s younger sister, and Tulle Jurney, who claimed that she only joined the team because Gracie bribed her with Starbucks.

The constant encouragement was as uplifting for the Lady Eagles as it was baffling for their opponents, Glavan said. “Whether it was a rebound, a steal, whatever we did, we’d hear them yell and then we’d look over to the other team and they’d be like, ‘They’re down 40! Why are you cheering?’ But they didn’t care.”

Describing her ragtag team, coach Hayden said, “I found their unselfishness truly inspiring. This group of young ladies has shown a maturity well beyond their age.”

Jennifer Hayden

Jennifer Hayden

Hayden has three daughters at OCA in grades six, three and kindergarten. “For them to have role models like these girls … I know we made a really good choice on where to be.”

Megan Rivera, a junior, was one of the only students who had played on the team last year. She almost didn’t play this season.

But after she saw the scraped-together team play their first game, she said to herself, “This isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right for me not to help them.”

Even if it meant losing every game, she decided to reenlist.

Next year, Rivera’s senior season, should be better. OCA has several up-and-coming freshmen who played on a very good junior varsity team. One of them is Rivera’s sister, Reese.

But “the reason I played this year was not for the boys’ team or for future teams,” Rivera said. “It was for this team, now.”

ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @eriktryggestad.

Filed under: Faith and sports Insight Oklahoma Christian Academy Opinion sports Top Stories

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