St. Joe girls have their day
HUNTINGTON -- Sitting up front at an assembly to celebrate a state championship has almost become old hat for Huntington St. Joe's girls basketball team.
After all, the St. Joe girls made it an annual event by winning the Class A title in six consecutive years.
However, Tuesday morning's ceremony took on a different feel for several members of the Irish.
As Huntington Mayor Steve Williams issued a proclamation that March 25 was "Lady Irish Day" in the City of Huntington, reality started to sink in a little bit for the players.
This was the final time they would ever sit down for such a ceremony and it might have been one of the final times they all sit together in the same location with so many going different directions in the future.
"I'm not an emotional person, but this is actually kind of sad," Huntington St. Joe senior Rachel Lee said. "We are like sisters and have a great bond. It's going to be weird next year when we all go our separate ways and we aren't playing together."
Lee is one of six seniors from this year's team and the group has been together for a long time to build that special bond.
Lee, Caitlin Gale and Kara Jeffrey have been together at St. Joe since kindergarten while Mychal Johnson and Griffin Dempsey enrolled for middle school in the sixth grade. Senior Asia Petitte joined her five classmates in seventh grade.
Together, the group grew together in sports and as teenagers, becoming sisters as Lee said.
As with any group of sisters, there were the occasional petty arguments, the frustrations and the gossip that teenagers deal with -- especially considering the Irish were on the road a lot and together all the time.
At the end of the day, though, there was something more.
"We got to spend a lot more time with each other outside of school," Lee said. "We had hotel rooms, car rides, in the locker room. We got to know each other a lot better, and it's not just on the court, but off the court, too. There was never a dull moment on any of those trips."
As Williams read the proclamation, he spoke of how no team had ever accomplished the things this team had -- a perfect 44-0 record in their four years against West Virginia competition, an 86-17 overall record against a national schedule in the same time and, for the seniors, four consecutive Class A state titles.
Williams' speech and proclamation had Johnson reflecting on the special nature of the run.
"It's starting to sink in now, just walking around the school and seeing this is my last couple of months here and it's weird being in the gym knowing that we won't practice here anymore," Johnson said. "It's really cool. No other school or basketball team has done what we've done and they don't have a day like we do. You can hear people talk about students at the school having a day and no one else can really say that. It's an amazing feeling. You can't really describe it."
Johnson also reflected on her favorite memory during the run -- her first taste of state championship success as a freshman when she led the Irish to a 56-49 win over St. Marys.
"I was thinking about the state tournament our freshman year," Johnson said. "St. Marys scored the first two points and everyone was going crazy and it was so loud. We just poised ourselves and took it one run at a time. We never looked back after that. That was the game that started everything in our minds that we could do this all four years."
The six seniors will all likely go their separate ways following graduation -- many of which will take them away from Huntington.
Four of the seniors will continue their basketball careers in college. Johnson will head to Notre Dame, Dempsey is going to be in Conference USA at Charlotte and Petitte will venture to Indiana to play for Evansville. Lee will continue her career at a school to be determined while also going into medical school.
Williams had an important message for them before they embark on their next chapter.
"No matter what you do once you leave here, this gym will always be your home," he said.
That message resonated with the seniors and helped put a finality on their time with the Irish.
"I still can't believe that I'll never wear this jersey again," Lee said. "I don't think anything can top this. It's pretty amazing what we've done here -- the foundation we've established. I'll always be a member of this team."
Those St. Joe seniors have been together for at least six years and, for some, as many as 13 years, meaning they have had plenty of days spent together.
But none of those days were like this one.
This was their day -- "Lady Irish Day."
And no matter where life's road leads them, it was a day that none of them will forget.
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