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By CHUCK JONES
CECILIA – For the six seniors on the Central Hardin High School girls’ team, basketball is much more than just a game.
Thirty-two minutes on game nights or two hours on practice days, the Lady Bruins put life’s more pressing issues on the backburner and feel like high school athletes across the country.
“I have a lot of things going on,” Christian Harper said. “Basketball lets us be an athlete or coming to school lets us be a student. We know when we go home it’s back to reality. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night I think about a lot of things. Basketball is a release … a freedom.”
Basketball helps ease the stress of life issues many of the Lady Bruins face away from the court. At a young age, words like death, cancer and surgery have become part of their vocabulary.
“We’ve all had to grow up pretty fast,” Alanna Stanton said. “Christian has to take care of her brothers. (Senior) Elena (Hitch) has to take care of her mom. I help out my dad as much as I can. I can’t imagine losing my dad like (senior) Kaitie (Fritts). Basketball gets us away. That’s the sole purpose.”
Although wins and losses are secondary, Coach Terry Buckles said it’s remarkable what this year’s team has accomplished, building a 19-8 record heading into the Girls’ 17th District Tournament, which begins Monday at North Hardin High School.
“The term that comes to mind is courage,” Buckles said. “They inspire me. I don’t think I could function nearly at the level they do with everything they’re going through and what they face every day. Their focus and concentration is amazing. It speaks volumes for their character.
“I’m sure I’ve had kids with issues, but nothing like this,” he added. “You take every senior and they have a story.”
Hitch and Harper both have mothers fighting breast cancer. Hitch’s mother, Paula, was diagnosed in 1999 and the disease returned last year. Paula’s been undergoing chemotherapy since September. Being the only child at home, Hitch often has to take her mother to appointments since her father is occasionally out of town for work.
Harper’s mother, Michelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer around Thanksgiving and started chemotherapy at the beginning of the year. To compound matters, Harper’s father, Eric, had brain surgery last March to remove a tumor that left him deaf in his right ear and paralyzed on the right side of his face. Harper is often responsible for her two younger brothers, Eric Jr., 15, and Anthony, 6.
“When Christian’s mom was diagnosed, she had a lot questions like why, why, why?” Hitch said. “I try to be there for her and help her out any way I can. I’ve been there, done that. I know what it’s like in that sense. We all have things going on, so it’s like an unspoken bond between us. Basketball is a chance for us to have fun together.”
Stanton’s father, Allen, was diagnosed with a staph infection in his right elbow in August. He nearly lost his arm and it cost him his job. He is still undergoing treatment, which often takes four or five hours a day.
“I was sad because I couldn’t do anything for him,” Stanton said. “The fear that they might have to take his arm off. That was shocking.”
Fritts’ father, Dan, died when she was in the eighth-grade. Dan had multiple sclerosis and Fritts admits to not “having a normal father-daughter relationship.” Two years later, her grandfather, Delime Boone, died.
“I never really knew my dad,” Fritts said. “I knew he loved me, but that was hard because we couldn’t talk. When my Pawpaw died, that was tough because I knew him and we talked a lot when I was out at the farm. With my dad, it was about what ifs.”
Senior Jennifer Hornback had surgery in December causing her to miss games during Christmas break.
Senior Kristen Cardin, who was expected to be the team’s starting point guard, sustained her second knee injury in nine months during a preseason scrimmage, a game in which she played only 28 seconds. Cardin had a second ACL surgery, but she has continued to support her teammates, sitting on the bench and even shooting four technical free throws.
Despite what might be going on in their personal lives, Buckles said never once has a player tried to use that as an excuse.
“The two hours they’re at practice or the night of the games, never has one of them said, ‘I’ve had an extra hard day and I can’t practice or play,’” Buckles said. “They don’t feel sorrow for themselves. All they have to do is look around and they realize they’re not the only ones going through this and they know they aren’t alone.”
Central Hardin has been one of the area’s top programs since the school opened in 1990, often being ranked in the top 10 and being a threat to win the 5th Region championship. The program’s rich tradition is held close to the players’ hearts.
“Every year the expectations are high,” Hitch said. “With everything we have going on in our personal lives, we shouldn’t lower the standards or expectations. We want to show we can step up and win games. Basketball is a chance to get away and relax, not mentally, but emotionally. But we still want to be successful and carry on the tradition.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759.