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By GOOSE LINDSAY
No matter what the outcome of this week’s TSSAA Class A State Tournament in Murfreesboro, tears are sure to flow in the locker room of the Oliver Springs Lady Bobcats as head coach Michelle Christopher will say goodbye to seven seniors, six of which have now played in Murfreesboro for four straight years.
The “Incredible Seven” include Jessie Morgan, who is playing her first year for the Lady ‘Cats, and six players (Kasi Bilyeu, Kelsey Hall, Kela Pugh, Britanny Lively, Mariah Ollis and Kayla Christopher) that were freshmen when Christopher took over the reigns of the Lady ‘Cat program in 2006.
“It will definitely be different without them,” Christopher said. “They’ve been so much fun. They’re so close; they’re all best friends and I think that’s what makes them great. They’ve been a great bunch of leaders and they’re going to be huge winners in life off the court.”
“We know each other so well,” Kasi Bilyeu said. “We play well together because we’ve played together so long. We know if we mistakes that the others will be there to pick us up.”
On the court, the 2009 class of Lady ‘Cats have won just about everything except the gold ball trophy that goes to the TSSAA State Champion. In middle school, the Lady ‘Cat seniors won two East Tennessee Championships and finished runner-up the third year. In high school, they have won four district championships, three region championships and Wednesday will mark their fourth consecutive trip to the TSSAA Class A State Tournament, with a runner-up finish in 2007 being their best finish in Murfreesboro.
Now the Lady ‘Cat seniors want to go out on a high note.
“We’ve accomplished so much since we’ve been six years old and this would be the icing on the cake,” Bilyeu said. “We want to be the team that wins the first state championship at Oliver Springs.”
“It’s going to be very emotional this week,” Lady ‘Cat senior Mariah Ollis added. “But it would be awesome for our school because Oliver Springs has never won a state championship.”
While winning has seemingly come easy for the Lady ‘Cats, coach Christopher says a lot of hard work has been done to get to this point and that work started under former Oliver Springs Middle School head coach Sam Bilyeu.
“Coach Bilyeu had them prepared so well; he made them mentally tough,” Christopher said. “His practices were so tough and they had to learn to lean on each other. I was excited to get them as soon as their eighth grade season was over.”
“Coach Bilyeu taught us to work hard and nothing comes easy,” Britanny Lively said. “I remember we would have workouts at 7:45 in the morning.”
“It taught us a lesson,” Hall added. “You have to work hard and not every team does what we do.”
“I think we have a lot of discipline and that comes from coach Bilyeu,” Kayla Christopher said. “He was hard on us, but it was worth it.”
“I don’t know how I made it under coach Bilyeu,” Pugh joked.
The toughness learned under Bilyeu carried over to their first year in high school. After losing head coach Todd Wright to Roane State and their three top scorers from the year before, the 2005-06 was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Oliver Springs, but the Lady ‘Cats exceeded all expectations by advancing to the state tournament.
“I was amazed by our freshman year,” Hall said. “We weren’t expected to win our district much less go to the state tournament.”
But going to the state tournament as freshmen only added fuel to a fire to a group that already had a tremendous work ethic. After 2005-06, the goal was to make it to Murfreesboro every year.
“It’s really neat,” Kayla Christopher said of making it to Murfreesboro four straight years. “I’m not sure how many teams have done it (four straight tournament appearances), but it wouldn’t have been the same to not make it this year as seniors.”
The road to the 2009 state tournament has been the toughest. Last week alone, the Lady ‘Cats needed overtime on Wednesday to defeat Wartburg in the Region 2-A Championship game and they needed triple overtime on Saturday to down Cloudland, 51-49, in the Class A sectional.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on us,” Pugh said. “This year was the toughest.”
Adversity, however, is something the Lady ‘Cats are accustomed to overcoming. When Michelle Christopher took over as head coach, a lot people wondered how well she could coach her daughter Kayla and how well Kayla’s friends would respond to one of their best friend’s mom being the head coach.
“That’s something else that makes them so special,” coach Christopher said. “They’re all Kayla’s best friends and their parents are my best friends. There was a bit of an adjustment period for them to see me as a coach and not Kayla’s mom, but a bonus for me is that I knew them inside and out before I got them as freshmen.”
“She’s like two different people to us,” Hall said. “At practice, she’s really intense and hard core, but at her house she’s Kayla’s mom and we just chill.”
Now with only days left in their high school career, coach Christopher knows that her team is thinking about the end of an era, but she also knows winning a state title is still their No.1 focus.
“I never doubt they will play hard, but I believe they’ll be even more focused knowing this is it,” Christopher said. “They’ve had a taste of the state championship game two years ago and they know what it takes to get it done. What will get them through the week is they have the heart, desire and the will to win.”
Hall, however, can’t help but think about what will be an emotional goodbye.
“I’m a train wreck,” Hall said. “I’ll probably be crying before it starts.”
“It’s going to be sad, really sad,” Morgan added.
But Kayla Christopher might have put it best.
“It’s going to be tough, but if you’re going to cry it might as well be tears of joy.”