• Last dance for St. Mary's sports

  • A week later, Krista Daniels points to the spot where she got the news like it’s a landmark.

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  • A week later, Krista Daniels points to the spot where she got the news like it’s a landmark.
    Over there, she motions toward an alley just outside the St. Mary’s High School gym. That’s where the Trojans girls basketball and volleyball coach’s world changed on Jan. 23, 2013. That date and that place will probably be ingrained in Daniels’ memory for the rest of her life.
    That day, Daniels drove from her job at Nativity of Mary School to practice and arrived around 4 p.m., just like she does every day. There she was greeted by St. Mary’s activities director Sara Kenney.
    “I guess you’ve heard,” Daniels remembers Kenney saying.
    Daniels actually hadn’t, but she knew what Kenney was about to say. St. Mary’s High School – the place Daniels grew up, the school she graduated from in 2003, where she’s coached the last six years – is closing in May, Kenney told her. Even though Daniels knew for some time this was likely, those words hit her like a drop-kick to the gut.
    “This has been my whole life,” Daniels said as she glanced at the high school.
    That St. Mary’s, a school that has been around for 150 years and is believed by some to be the oldest high school west of the Mississippi River, is shutting down has crushed a dwindling but tight-knit community and will have far-reaching effects on the school’s administrators, teachers, students and parents. The Trojans’ athletics programs give a telling snapshot of many of the issues at play.
    The reason St. Mary’s is closing shop is painfully obvious inside the Trojans’ wrestling room. Only five guys came out for first-year coach Kelvin Knisely’s squad and just four stayed. As enrollment has declined, so have the numbers for most of St. Mary’s athletics programs. Only 18 played football last fall.
    The wrestling team works inside a cramped classroom with some mats thrown down to transform it into a makeshift practice facility. It’s not ideal, but the Trojans make the most of it. St. Mary’s is hardly a wrestling power, but three of the Trojans placed at last week’s Crossroads Conference Tournament as Sawyer Meese took the 285-pound title and Hunter Soule (220) and Shelton Martin (160) registered second-place finishes.
    This is where the team was when Kenney walked in to officially issue the word that the school was finished at year’s end. Knisely said there was a brief moment of disappointment, then the guys went back to work.
    This is the kind of thing that provokes an array of emotions. For the wrestlers in that room, it seemed to conjure glum resignation.
    “It’s pretty sad,” Meese said. “Some people were crying (the next day at school). Some people were taking it pretty hard. But the decision’s made. You can’t really do much.”
    Page 2 of 3 - ———
    As Daniels walked into the gym with Kenney, she faced a locker room full of 15 heartbroken girls. Many of those teenagers were also filled with anxious uncertainty.
    It’s one thing for the seniors at the school to cope with all this. But they’ll graduate with all their friends and celebrate a happy, if bittersweet, final chapter. The underclassmen, however, must face tough decisions about what comes next. They knew St. Mary’s would eventually close and merge with Bishop O’Hara as the new Catholic high school called St. Michael the Archangel High School in Lee’s Summit in 2015, but they didn’t know St. Mary’s would close so quickly.
    “Us juniors had been thinking about what we would do next year and what would happen,” said Andrea Sirna, a junior on the girls basketball team. “... I was strong for my team, but I was nervous. Like, ‘What am I going to do? This is my family.’”
    Sirna is unsure what she’ll do next year, but she’s mulling going to public school and trying to graduate at semester. Like a lot of athletes at St. Mary’s, the idea of starting over on a new team seems daunting and a little pointless. Best to move to the next step.
    They’re not the only ones whose futures are in limbo. While most of the St. Mary’s coaches hold full-time jobs outside of the school, their coaching careers are now taking an unfortunate detour. Boys basketball coach Carlos Paige, Daniels and Knisely all hope to keep coaching. Where that will be and when they’ll land another gig is uncertain.
    “I’ve practically lived in the gym my whole life,” said Daniels, who played basketball, volleyball, softball and ran track at St. Mary’s. “I don’t think I could give it up that easily. But it’s like I keep telling my girls, I’m focusing on them right now. My focus is on this team right now. The St. Mary’s team.”
    Class standing is kind of insignificant now. For all intents and purposes, if you’re a student at St. Mary’s, you’re a senior.
    That lends a sense of urgency to the final weeks of the basketball season, Paige said.
    “This group of guys has been working very hard even before the announcement,” he said. “They had really high expectations to begin with and those haven’t changed. In essence, it’s really the same path. They just know this is their last shot.”
    These St. Mary’s teams are guaranteed a special spot in the Trojan record books. Maybe it’s not needed, but that certainly gives some added motivation to the final group of St. Mary’s athletes.
    Page 3 of 3 - “We always talk about putting something up on the banner,” said Wade Johnson, a junior on the boys basketball team. “This is our last real shot to do something like that.”
    Of course, turning the lights out with a championship run would be storybook but also unlikely considering both hoops teams currently hold losing records and neither program has won a district crown since the girls won one in the 1994-95 season (1969-70 for the boys). That’s why Daniels is taking a carpe diem approach the rest of the way.
    This is hitting Daniels as hard as anyone. She started going to volleyball and basketball camps at St. Mary’s when she was a 6-year-old and her sister, Kara (Daniels) Brown – a four-sport athlete and 1996 graduate – was in school. Understandably, her emotions are still raw.
    But she’s doing her best to keep that from tainting what’s left of the season. It’s like she tells her players, in a few months they’ll face life-altering choices. For now, though, savor the moment.
    “Let’s spend more time making memories here these next four months,” Daniels said. “When it comes time to make that decision, I’ll be there to help them with that as much as I can. Everything happens for a reason and we’ll worry about that when the time comes. But let’s just have fun and regardless of our record make as many memories as we can.”
    The day they received the news, Daniels gave her the team the option of taking a day off practice. Within five minutes they were all lined up on the baseline ready to go. In the days since the announcement, basketball’s provided a sort of sanctuary for both teams. Life is stressful, but for an hour or two every day, those troubles go away.
    “For the hour and a half or two hours every practice and the 32 minutes we play in games, that’s our time,” Paige said. “Don’t let that other stuff come into play with that.”
    The Trojans know their time together has a shelf life. That’s a cruel circumstance the 102 students at St. Mary’s are trying to reconcile. But for now, the Trojans are choosing to focus on one of the few things they still have a hand in.
    “We always remind each other that this is our last year,” Sirna said. “No arguing. No fights. If there’s a little argument or something, forget about it. Just let it go and move on.
    “Knowing this is going to be the last (season) we ever play, it’s a little more special. It makes us closer.”

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