Imagine the biggest game of a high school player's life.
And they walk into a gymnasium with no fans – only “60 essential” personnel.
That’s what coach Randy Draper’s Grain Valley High School girls team will experience at 6 p.m. Saturday at Blue Springs South High School, where the girls will meet Lincoln Prep in a Class 4 state quarterfinal.
Although details seem to change on a minute-to-minute basis, the latest dictates from the Missouri State High School Activities Association say that 60 essential personnel from each school can attend the game.
That includes 15 players, four coaches, two managers, two administrators and approximately two representatives of each player.
Draper said the Eagles will dress 14 players.
“I was talking with Brandon (Hart, Grain Valley activities director) today and told him we were missing a golden money-making opportunity,” Draper joked, his voice crackling.
“Just think – you could raffle off those tickets and make a lot of money for this school.”
He then paused for a moment, and added, “If you can’t laugh, you’re just going to cry. Thank goodness they’re allowing the parents – or whoever the kids select, to see the game.”
When freshman star Grace Slaughter was asked about what the atmosphere at South would be like without the student section, the 6-foot-1 point guard who is averaging over 23 points a game had a quick answer.
“We love our fans, and it’s going to be hard to look in the bleachers and not see them,” Slaughter said. “But we play for each other. When we’re out on the court, we’re going to be playing for each other and the girls on our bench are amazing. I know they’re going to be making a lot of noise.”
How much noise will be they making?
“Well,” Draper said, grinning, “I hope each girl on our bench makes the noise of about 100 fans.”
The 20-7 Eagles have just two starters off last year’s 11-win team – junior guard Malia Gutierrez and Keely Hill.
Slaughter and freshman center Ella Clyman have been game changers for the Eagles, who also have a host of underclassmen who are all comfortable – and successful – in their respective roles.
“Our girls are gritty, tough and ready to go,” Draper said. “In our three playoff wins – against Oak Grove, Center and our last game against Nevada – that panic button was right there, and it was glowing!
“They could have reached over and pushed it and they never even thought about it. When we turned the ball over (five out of the first six possessions against Nevada) they just worked through it.
“If that happens any other time in a game, it’s no big deal, but it’s a big deal when you start with five turnovers. And it wasn’t a problem. They respond so well to any situation, and I think that’s what I am most proud of.”
Ditto for his players.
“We don’t panic,” Slaughter said. “Coach has us so well prepared, we’re ready for anything. And we all play to our strength. We have players who can score, rebounders, defensive players and great leadership.”
That’s a big reason they are still playing, and hoping to get one more win to become the first girls basketball team in school history to reach the final four.
“Look, to get to this point, to get – hopefully – to the final four, you need more than one big-time player like Grace, and we have a team of them,” Draper said.
“We have a team, and it’s going to take a team effort to get past Lincoln Prep. They were in the final four last year and they have a program that has had so much success.
“We all respect them, but we’re not afraid of them. We know it’s going to take a great game to get a win on Saturday and that’s what we’ve been working on all week – watching film, working hard and doing all the little things to see if we can’t get one more big win.”