Things very rarely turn out the way you expect them to, especially in sports. The Oklahoma women's basketball team found that out the hard way this season. A very promising team, full of young talent and veteran leadership was derailed early in the season when four players went down with season-ending injuries in the first month of the season.
"It was hard for all of us," OU coach Sherri Coale said. "It's hard for the kid who gets hurt; it's hard for the kids who continue playing in the absence of the one who got hurt. It's hard for everybody."
As difficult as it was, OU didn't quit, taking third place in the Big 12 conference and earning a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they will take on No. 11 seed Central Michigan in the first round Saturday morning at 10:15 a.m.
In the middle of all the heartache and the struggle was Coale, the architect and maintainer of the OU program. As the injuries piled up, Coale could do nothing but stand by and watch as the expectations she had for her team at the beginning of the season crumbled. She said she's never experienced a more difficult season through her 17 years in Norman, but the difficulties have made her a better coach.
"One of the things that happens when you face adversity like this is you start to try things that you might not have tried otherwise," Coale said. "You start to think outside the box, take some risks—out of necessity perhaps—but maybe your paradigm shifts and you look at things differently. I think it makes you grow."
On the court, the Sooners persevered despite playing with just eight healthy scholarship players. In fact, OU had to add two members of the OU volleyball team—Eden Williams and Tara Dunn—just to be able to go 5-on-5 during practice. Even though the circumstances were extreme, they never quit or felt sorry for themselves.
"This team was very, very resilient," Coale said. "They were very on to the next thing. It was a combination of the guys who were hurt and the guys who were healthy continuing to choose to do the next best thing because they knew they didn't have any control over what had just happened. All they could control was the next thing.
"Really, there were never any pick me up speeches. There were just directives of here's what we do next."
With the absence of so many leaders, primarily senior guard Whitney Hand, the remaining players had to stretch themselves to fill the voids left on the court. Coale said it was the most rewarding part of the season for her as the coach. Although many players stepped up, it was one player in particular that impressed Coale.
"Aaryn Ellenberg is not a vocal player," Coale said. "We lost Whitney's vocal presence and Whitney's directedness on the floor because that's what Whit did. In the absence of that, someone had to be that voice on the floor. A coach or an injured player on the sidelines can't do it. It has to be the guys in the middle of the action.
"Vegas has assumed that role and I saw it so clearly in the second half of the Texas Tech game (March 4). She literally vocally, demonstratively took the team and had them in the palm of her hand for the final 12 minutes of the game. That is her in a position that doesn't feel like home to her and she did it and we flourished as a result of it."
Ellenberg may have been most impressive in her ability to step into an uncomfortable role, but Coale said she knew the young players on the team grew and learned a lot, as well.
In her blog, Coale posted in October after the Sooners' trip to Australia that her team was "better than we think we are." As the season progressed, the young players learned something along the same lines.
"I think probably the greatest lesson going forward for young players is the knowledge that we are capable of so much more than we think we are," Coale said. "Everyone can say they know that but it's one thing to intellectually know that. My brain says we are capable of far more than we think we are. But it's another thing for your heart to say it and your soul know it because you've been through it."
This season was a perfect storm of sacrifice and selflessness for the Sooners, despite the disappointment that seemed to come with every twist and turn. Players stepped up, the younger players grew, but most importantly, the players who were injured, particularly seniors Hand and Lyndsey Cloman, never checked out. Coale knows the Sooners wouldn't have been as good as they were this season without the participation of the seniors.
"Their leadership, their presence, their involvement was invaluable to our team," Coale said. "These two guys are living a remarkable experience this season. It's not the one they envisioned when they painted the picture in their mind and signed their letter of intent; this was not how it ended up. But it's a unique and remarkable experience nonetheless. It's been a win-win."
It would be easy to classify the OU season as a failure based on the unmet expectations, but Coale and the Sooners have a definition of success completely devoid of wins and losses.
"Are you the best you are capable of becoming?" Coale asked. "It's not about the number of games that you win; it's not about a rung you get in the NCAA tournament, or a net you cut down. That's not the definition of success. Have you scratched and clawed your way to the edge of your potential?"
In fact, the Sooners' definition of success almost has more to do with others than the team itself.
"As a team, when we play, we want to play in such a way that sends a message; we send a message to people who watch us that maybe after they watch us, they want to go and be and do just a little bit better than they were before they watched us," Coale explained. "If we can send that message, if people can leave a game of ours and say, ‘Wow, I want to do a better job wherever I am tomorrow. I want to be a better version of me tomorrow,' then we've been a success."
This season may not have been have been what the Sooners expected it to be, but it's rare something lives up to the original expectation. However, when Oklahoma had the chance to quit and call it a year, it didn't. The Sooners persevered and have a chance to make another run in the NCAA tournament.
The thoughts of what could have been will no doubt linger, but good things are coming for this OU program. When hardship rears its ugly head in the future, the Sooners will be able to look back on this season, remind themselves of the incredible odds they overcame and embrace the difficulties with grit and determination.