Tahlequah Daily Press


January 14, 2014

Golden experience for last-place Shrine team

MUSKOGEE — In a basketball tournament where 40 of the 48 games played were decided by double-digits and 28 of those by more than 20 points, it’s not as if the 34th Bedouin Shrine Classic had a lot of classics this past week.

Cookson Hills’ girls team fit right into that pattern. Indeed, the six Lady Crusaders were the poster children for taking it on the chin.

Yet, far beyond the action itself, not even the four champions made the kind of mark this group did.

These kids are used to taking it on the chin. Most have been at-risk children, now or at some point in their lives. Cookson Hills, a school that ranges between 40 and 50 kids each week and based in little Kansas, takes students ordered there by the state, for being abusive or for having been abused, criminals or those victimized by crime, runaways or throwaways.

You had to look beyond the scoreboards that showed 97-19, 88-19 and 67-8 setbacks against Sequoyah, Summit Christian and Porter to the hand-slaps they gave to members of those lopsided victors after nice scoring plays to fully appreciate what was happening those three nights.

“These kids are taught that all individuals have different gifts from God and different abilities, and we’re to encourage others in their gifts and appreciate what they can do,” said their coach, Amber Bennett.

Clearly, these other schools had girls more developed in basketball. Case in point: 2013 Class 3A quarterfinalist Sequoyah had girls six inches to a foot taller and a largely senior lineup from one end of its bench to the other. Cookson, 0-6 now, had a half-dozen kids, a few of whom had never before played prep basketball, and all no taller than 5-foot-6, some an even 5 feet. Two of the four were eighth-graders.

Told that Sequoyah was the school that was within seconds of a record four state championships a few years back and also produced the WNBA’s Angel Goodrich, Abby Williams let out a “wow,” feeling much better about watching the Lady Indians come three points from the century mark.

“They looked at the program and the profiles of each team and were a little discouraged going in,” said Bennett, who decided not to pull out even after Teen Challenge, a group the school has blended with to come up with the numbers for a football team the past several years, according to Bennett, had to pull out of a plan to blend in other sports due to financial considerations.

“I wasn’t going to drop this tournament because our girls had been practicing since October with this in mind,” she said. “In the Old Testament battle between David and Goliath, it didn’t matter how tall Goliath was, David had the faith that he’d get the strength and ability to overcome. I told them we might not overcome in terms of the scoreboard, but we could by our need to learn, and also to grow in our relationships with each other and with God.”

Remember, most of these kids have been lacking in good relationships. And Cookson Hills makes no apologies for bringing the Almighty into the equation.

“You can get as many victories as you want but it doesn’t matter if you have a dumb attitude,” said Williams, who as a child of a staff member has grown up at Cookson Hills. “What makes a champion in attitude is when you can overcome losses. You can rise above anything.”

She wasn’t just talking basketball either.

Although some of the players could not comment publicly because of confidentiality issues, Bennett’s own daughter, Iridian, spent a lot of years in and out of other children’s homes before being recently adopted by the coach. She’s experienced it all — family abuse, drugs, and now a sense of serenity and purpose.

“Sometimes it’s harder than others ... I seem to like it because I can relate. Kids who are struggling with something, either I have been through that or I have seen it happen,” Iridian said.

“It kind of puts me in like a mentor position. That’s what I feel like God has called me to do and it makes me happy because I know I can be there for that person. They know my past because I am not afraid to state it.”

To top it off, Iridian’s mom/coach has her own cross to bear, around those, like myself, who give her the kind of glance you give someone who looks as if they have cancer. She told me she suffers from an alopecia, an auto-immune disorder that manifests itself by attacking hair follicles. All of hers are wiped clean.

“It only affects my looks,” she said with a chuckle.

There were lots of chuckles, and smiles, as they posed with their eighth place trophy. That’s eighth, as in last. Now it’s on to a more compatible schedule in the Oklahoma Christian Schools Athletic Association.

So in a tournament put together to benefit kids, they fit right in.

And they weren’t the only ones blown out.

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