How the Wichita West high school girls basketball team found hope in a canceled season
There are no games to prepare for, no competition to look forward to. And yet, every day after school, the same six girls return to the gym to practice basketball.
The season has been over for three weeks for the Wichita West high school girls basketball team, which had no choice but to forfeit the remaining games on its schedule because it simply ran out of players.
West, one of the largest high schools in Kansas with a student population of nearly 1,500, being unable to find five girls willing to play basketball is a bizarre situation, one that could be a first in City League history.
“We cried,” said Ty Hardwell, a sophomore. “We worked hard every day, Monday through Friday, and we put our all into basketball.”
“We put in so much hard work and then we got it all taken away from us,” said Miaya Coleman, another sophomore. “It hurts seeing other girls get to play, and then we go to our boys games and see them playing other schools, knowing we are supposed to be out there playing before them, it really hurts.”
Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation, the four remaining players at West have managed to find hope. With their season canceled, the group has remained committed to its routine: an hour-long study hall to finish their homework, then a 90-minute practice with a volunteer coach. They have since attracted two more players to join them: the former team manager and another girl interested in learning the game.
“It’s still hard for me, even to this day, to muster through everything,” said Brittanie Brickhouse, a volunteer coach. “What keeps me coming back, and I think all of us, are the bonds we have with one another. These girls are what keep me going and it’s them alone. Every single one of them just being here right now shows that they want more. They want more than what life has offered them so far.”
This season will be recorded as a winless campaign for the West girls basketball team, but the lessons that can be found in its gym are far more significant.
‘We were just hoping to make it to Christmas’
It’s the sad truth, but there was plenty of foreshadowing to the team shuttering well before West made the final decision on Jan. 11.
The earliest sign of trouble dated back to this past summer when West athletic director David Clark posted the open position of varsity girls basketball head coach and said he didn’t receive a single applicant in two months. Out of necessity, Clark had to coach the team himself.
“It’s a different challenge coaching here at West,” Clark said. “A lot of our kids have to work — and not just so they can pay for gas. They’re helping to pay their family’s bills.”
The lack of interest was evident when only two girls showed up for girls basketball conditioning this past summer. Some were busy playing fall sports, like volleyball, but when team tryouts rolled around in the fall, a total of nine girls showed up. There were no cuts — Clark couldn’t afford to make any.
To try to drum up interest, Clark said he plastered messages on the school’s social media pages, put up signs around the school and made announcements each morning over the intercom about how to join the team. He begged the players who were on the team to try to bring a friend.
“It was like we were pulling teeth,” Clark said. “When the season started, we were just hoping to make it to Christmas.”
The team actually did make it to Christmas, but that is when things began to unravel.
Following winter break, two girls quit the team to instead work after school. Then injuries began to pile up for West in its first two games back from break, as the team was left with just four healthy players following a 57-7 loss to Northwest on Jan. 10.
The next day, Clark made calls to City League athletic director Kaleb Stoppel and the offices of the Kansas State High School Sports Activities Association to make it official: The rest of the season was canceled at West. The rest of West’s opponents were notified and awarded a forfeit win and the maximum of 15 points in the postseason seeding criteria.
“It’s so tough because you hurt for those kids that still wanted to play, but we just didn’t have the numbers to warrant it,” Clark said. “I’m disappointed but I wouldn’t say embarrassed, because we are working our butts off to try to get kids interested in sports. I just don’t know what else to do.”
It’s a situation that Stoppel, in his first year as district athletic director after serving as the Olathe East AD the previous four years, has monitored closely.
“Coming from the KC area, I would have never fathomed something like this could be possible in Wichita,” Stoppel said. “I had trouble accepting it at first, but it’s really no fault of anybody. I’m still getting to know our schools as a newcomer, but what I have learned already is that West High cares immensely about their kids. They are very transparent about the challenges their kids face just to be engaged with the academic school day, let alone extracurricular activities.”
The majority of West’s players were newcomers to basketball and learning the game from the fundamentals up. Ideally, they would have had the opportunity to develop at the junior-varsity, C team or freshmen level. Instead, everyone had to play varsity because the program did not have the numbers for a sub-varsity team.
“It’s really disappointing because we understand that sports are really the best at-risk program that we have for the least amount of dollars,” Clark said. “Having a kid tied into their school through sports keeps them connected.”
West isn’t the only Wichita Public School facing a problem with diminishing numbers in girls basketball. In fact, no Wichita Public School has a freshman girls basketball team this season.
Stoppel says urban school districts all over the country are struggling with the same problem following the coronavirus pandemic and USD 259 is no different. Before he can formulate a possible solution, Stoppel says he is currently in “data collection mode” to study the problem.
“We have some of the biggest schools in the state and we’re having problems re-engaging our kids and we have to figure out why they’re not being engaged,” Stoppel said. “Right now we’re in the study phase where we’re seeing which sports are impacted more and at which schools, so we can determine the appropriate support we need to provide each school. We will sit and look into the information and develop some interventions down the road, but right now we’re fact-finding.”
‘A shining light in what has been a dark cloud’
When David Clark informed the West girls basketball team the rest of the season was canceled, he threw out a possibility: If any girls still wanted to practice, he would make the gym available to them after school.
He didn’t know what to expect since the team was 0-7 and losing games by an average of 48 points, but it wasn’t difficult for all four of the remaining healthy players to say yes.
“You can look at our scores and see we were just getting destroyed on the scoreboard, but not with our heart, not with our effort,” Clark said. “Those girls were giving everything they had. To see those kids still wanting to come and participate in study hall and be around the team and have skill development, they have been a shining light in what has been a dark cloud.”
Since the season was underway, KSHSAA’s bylaws offered no wiggle room for a co-op situation to allow the remaining girls to play for another school’s team. The players could have transferred schools, but none did.
For Miaya Coleman and Ty Hardwell, the two most basketball-savvy players on the team — and the only two who showed up every day to summer conditioning with volunteer coach Brittanie Brickhouse — they recognized the adversity they were going through and decided to go through it together.
“I can’t leave coach Brickhouse because she gave us a chance and she helped build up my confidence,” Hardwell said. “Why would I leave to go to a different school when coach Brickhouse told me everything she was going to do to help me and actually meant it and did it? She kept her word, so we can’t just leave her like that.”
Brickhouse, a 2019 South High graduate who played under coach Antwain Scales during his historic four-peat of state championships, has been the glue to the team staying together with her youthful energy and passion for teaching.
That’s exactly the kind of leader the program needs, says Marcus Myers, who was the head coach at West for the previous three years before leaving to coach the Northwest girls.
“All those girls need is someone to believe in them,” Myers said. “I absolutely loved my time there and it was really hard leaving because the girls there are different. Pioneer basketball has some of the hardest-working girls in the city and you listen to their stories and it’s humbling. They just need someone to show up for them every day because it gives them that feeling of hope.”
Gabby Faust and Kiari Albright, the team’s two seniors and captains, were devastated upon learning the days.
“It was extremely heartbreaking,” Faust said. “I was the team’s leading rebounder, so I was looking forward to going out with a bang my senior year.”
Both seniors have started working jobs since the season was canceled, but their love of the game has not been lost. Faust is looking forward to playing with her AAU team and now attends games to support her AAU teammates. She hopes to attend college on a basketball scholarship.
Neil Faust, Gabby’s father who is a former all-City League player himself, said the family is heartbroken for the memories lost for the seniors this season.
“It sucks for my baby to not get the experience of finishing up her senior season and get the chance to have a senior night,” Neil Faust said. “It sucks not being able to walk with my baby on her last night in high school because those are life-time memories.”
While nothing can make up for those lost memories, Brickhouse has done her best to earn the trust of the younger players by simply showing up every day and being a consistent presence in their lives.
“I’m the first in my family to play sports, so playing basketball is a good way to stay in shape and keep my grades up,” West freshman Alayah Ransom said. “I’ve been getting better with coach Brick as my coach. She’s helped me improve my basketball skills and I’m getting more into basketball. I’m looking forward to playing again next year.”
Brickhouse drills the players on basic fundamentals, like dribbling with their head up, taking the right steps into a layup and finishing with the correct hand. The girls usually end practices with a 3-on-3 half-court game with Brickhouse occasionally hopping in to teach her girls something new.
Seeing the incremental improvements in her players is what keeps Brickhouse motivated for the next practice.
“I find so much joy when I’m able to help a player who doesn’t have much experience with basketball learn something new,” Brickhouse said. “When I see them do things in a drill that I taught them, it just makes me jump with joy because it’s so exciting.”
The players — much like Brickhouse — could decide one day they’ve grown tired of practicing and would rather work a job or spend their free time another way. So far, everyone has remained committed.
It’s as if there’s an unspoken agreement between the coach and the players that they are going to find a way to overcome this adversity together. Their resiliency is their bond.
“My teammates and coach are what keep me coming back,” Ransom said. “They inspire me to keep going and don’t quit.”
The hope is next year for the West girls basketball team to return to playing games. Brickhouse says the current practices are setting the tone for next season and she is determined to spread the word about the program at the middle school level to West’s feeder schools. After hearing the news of what happened to this season, a friend of the program has already committed to financially support any West girls basketball players who want to play summer basketball this upcoming summer.
Even though the program has only won a handful of games over the last six years and seemed destined for another winless season this year, things seem to be trending up.
But nothing can replace what was lost this winter.
“The losses weren’t even really disappointing to me; it was more about not being able to have the joy of being on the court and competing,” Coleman said. “To us, it wasn’t about the score or about winning or losing. I just wanted to be on the court.”