Oregon State was in the midst of its best start to a women’s basketball season in its history.
The Beavers were undefeated at 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, its highest ranking ever at the time.
Not only that, the team was in Hawaii for its annual tournament, getting a chance to bask in the sun, give back to the community and play some basketball.
But before taking the court to face Northern Arizona on Dec. 18, they learned that a member of their fan base — Chad Finn — died tragically while vacationing on the island.
It was obviously a tough blow for many players who had gotten to know Finn, an avid supporter of the program, and his family.
Somehow, the team managed to turn its attention to the task at hand and the Beavers picked up two more wins to improve to 11-0 before heading back home for the Christmas holiday.
Oregon State returned to the court and picked up three more wins to get to 14-0 and a No. 3 ranking.
But just as the shock of Finn’s death was subsiding, another longtime supporter of the program, Ken Johnson, lost his battle with cancer on Jan. 6.
Once again, the players and coaches were stunned.
It would seem a heavy burden to bear especially with Pac-12 play underway. It certainly was difficult to comprehend at times, maybe even too much to handle.
“I mean the amount of times we've had to have a team talk and it's been like disappointing, like sad, like almost heartbreaking news, it's honestly been more than I've ever had in one season and the season’s not even close to being done,” junior guard Aleah Goodman admitted this past Tuesday.
While Goodman said she was proud of the way the team handled it — "like an adult" — there were plenty of tough moments, but ones that "really brought us together."
“But yeah it's been tough. I feel like we can't really get a break with those types of things.”
The team made it a priority to attend the memorials for both Finn and Johnson, acknowledging the impact both made on their lives and the lives of so many others in the Corvallis community and beyond.
“It's been challenging for sure because those are two people that we really care about and two families that have been so kind to our program and so supportive of us to the point where they've kind of become a fabric of the community and who we are,” coach Scott Rueck said. “They were clearly loved by thousands of people and so impactful. So it's hard to lose anybody and then for those two to happen so closely together, back to back. One so sudden and one way quicker (than anticipated).”
For many of the players, it was a new experience to go through the process of losing someone so close to them.
Johnson’s death was particularly difficult on senior Mikayla Pivec, who worked closely with him on several community service projects. Johnson donated money for prizes for an event Pivec and teammate Destiny Slocum organized at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis back in November.
“It’s really shifted my perspective in terms of how much you should enjoy people while they're here,” Pivec said, fighting back tears. “Ken was a great mentor to me outside of basketball. So having that is tough but that just gives you more purpose and more fuel to try and play for them and play for something bigger than basketball.”
Meanwhile freshman Taylor Jones was going through her own journey of emotions as the one-year anniversary of her mother losing her battle with cancer was nearing.
As it turned out, Jones had a game to play on the anniversary as the Beavers played at home against Colorado on Jan. 5. It was a tough process but since her mother passed away around 12:30 a.m., she had time to try “to get all of the tears out that night before the game.”
Jones managed all those emotions and finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds in a 72-60 victory.
“I mean I knew that I had to come out and execute and play the best that I could for the team,” Jones said. “And that's what my mom would have wanted. She would have wanted me to go out there and play the best that I could. I mean she wants me to every single day.”
Still, it was anything but easy.
“I mean nothing really could prepare you for the pain on that day,” Jones said. “But it has been like therapeutic just knowing that a year has gone by and it's definitely getting a little easier. It still is hard every day but I just go out there and play for her every single day I can.”
While Jones didn't know Finn or Johnson as well as others on the team, having gone through her own personal experience has helped her be a support for her teammates.
“Going to the memorials just reminded me of the stuff with my mom,” she said. “Obviously that was painful what I had to go through, but I think because of what I went through I learned what people need in that time and hopefully I was able to help some people just like supporting them.
“Because I mean there are no words that you can say, that's what I've learned in a situation like this. There's nothing you can say that will make it better. You just need to be there for people and so hopefully through what I've been through I'm able to help some people that are hurting right now.”
Rueck, who has had to deliver some bad news from time to time over the course of his coaching career, said this is probably the most he has had to deal with in a season.
So how do you help the players cope and still focus on playing the game they love, especially with the situation the players have put themselves in to have a special season?
“You just do the best you can and you try to feel out what the team needs, and for all of us (coaches) to be what they need,” Rueck said. “And it's a challenging thing because you can't get too far away from the task at hand because that's demanding and we have to keep going.
"At the same time there's an empathy that you have and a feel that you have that, man, we have to make sure they understand we care about them more as people than basketball players.”
He said it helped that there was no doubt both Finn and Johnson would want them to get back on the court and play to their best ability.
“In each instance it was pretty simple to know and pretty clear to know what Chad would have wanted for the team, and if he were able to address us one more time the type of encouragement he would give us,” Rueck said. “Same for Ken.
“What would they want us to do and how can we honor these two amazing guys? Well by being the best we can be and taking care of each other even more and loving every second. These were both fun-loving, amazing people that gave us such great examples of how to live.”
With heavy hearts, the Beavers were about to go through another difficult time, this one on the basketball court. After Pivec delivered the game-winner in the closing seconds to beat Arizona for a 15-0 start, the Beavers lost four of their next five and dropped to No. 10 in the AP poll. The first loss cost them a chance to be No. 1.
During that stretch, yet another tragic death — Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna along with seven other people — shook them a bit. It was one more reminder of the fragility of life.
While losing was difficult, many players were able to get through it with a new perspective.
“Experiencing the losses through that, both were tough,” Pivec said. “But it does remind you you're still here, you're still fighting another day you're still doing what you can outside of the game to make the world better place. So it is a good reminder for what's most important.”
The Beavers also suffered another loss, albeit not on the same level by any means, when junior Taya Corosdale suffered a leg injury early in the season and will be forced to miss the season.
Freshman Kennedy Brown also went down Friday night with an injury, although there is no word on the severity or length of time she might be out.
“It definitely shows that there's so much more than basketball and especially here, being at Oregon State, being in this program, it's just shown how this is just more than a team," Goodman said. "Just the things we've experienced, the things we've been through are special because we've been able to get through it together and just grow as a team grow as a program.”
As much as the Beavers have overcome so much grief and difficult new experiences, they sure hope this is the end.
“Because I don't think we can take much more honestly,” Goodman said. “I'm like what else can we hear at this point?”
No matter what, the Beavers, who won a wild 64-62 game over Arizona State on Friday when they scored two buckets in the final second of play, will remained as focused as possible on finishing the season strong and making another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
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