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Tusky Valley overcomes tragedy, grows closer together on the basketball court

With a win at the Classic in the Country, Tusky Valley girls basketball starts the season 10-2

BERLIN, Ohio – Just 60 days ago, nobody knew what to expect with Tusky Valley’s athletic teams when they were able to take to the court.  And then on Saturday, the girls basketball team opened the 2024 Classic in the Country with a 52-39 win over Western Brown to move to 10-2 on the season.

It’s been two months since the community of Tusky Valley was devastated by a crash that killed three high school students along with three adults on a band trip to the Ohio School Boards Association conference in Columbus.

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, on the morning of November 14, 2023, a semi-truck didn’t slow down on I-70 westbound in Licking County, ran over the Nissan Murano in front it and then crashed into the back of a charter bus carrying dozens of Tusky Valley school band members and all three vehicles caught fire.

Students Wyatt Mosley, Jeffrey “J.D” Worrell and Katelyn Owens were in the bus and adults Dave Kennat, Kristy Gaynor and Shannon Wigfield were in the Murano. All six were killed and many others were injured.

The tragic event has affected the entire Tusky Valley community, and the athletic teams are no exception.

It happened just as the girls basketball team was set to start scrimmages prior to the beginning of the regular season, which threw off their schedule.

“When everything happened at our at our school with the accident, it was obviously leading into the season with scrimmages and so on,” Tusky Valley head coach Matt Ward said. “It was tough because obviously we weren't able to be together as much as we normally would. Players had different connections with different families and people.”

Despite not having a ton of time together, the Trojans came out in their opener and won 52-35 over Indian Creek and won the first four games of the season.

“We had a little bit of nerves in the first game just with not having a lot of experience (together),” Tusky Valley senior Sally Ray said. “But you settle down after a while a couple of plays in and it didn't really affect us mostly.”

Part of getting into the feel of the game came from their practices, where having a strong JV team allowed them to get in game work.

“We do a lot of scrimmages in our practices,” junior Leah Bourquin said. “So even though we didn't get to do a lot of scrimmages, we still got to work up and down the floor.”

Those practices were not mandatory in the days after the accident but most of the players made their way to the gym.

“Right when it happened, coach made practice optional,” Ray said. “And even with it optional, you'd see girls come in and we were shooting around, we just had free play. We were coming in and we were talking and definitely in some way brought us together.”

For the girls on the basketball team, it was comforting to be around the teammates they would spend the next few months with throughout the season.

“I think it just showed us that it's better to be together in tough times than being separated,” junior Kaleigh Norris said. “There's no one better to be around than your teammates that support you.”

In those times, being together also meant they could lean on one another and offer support unlike maybe other people could give.

“We've had a close group here for a couple of years, but it's definitely been a situation where they've wanted to be with each other,” Ward said. “They wanted to spend time together. They wanted to get back in the gym together. They wanted to be there for each other, and they were great for reaching out to ones that maybe struggled a little bit more with this than others because everyone had different connections.”

In some ways, being on the basketball court allowed the girls to get away from real life and tragedy, even if just for a couple of hours.

“It was so hard to sit at home when everyone was mourning,” Bourquin said. “To go to the gym it just felt good. You had a smile on your face because you're with your favorite people to be around.”

The girls have not only received support from everyone in the Tusky Valley community, but from those outside as well.

“At Tusky Valley, we like to show love and support,” Ray said. “It’s been good from other teams, as well. We've seen other teams wearing their support on the shirts, the ‘TV Strong.’ It means a lot.’

And now the girls have been able to focus on basketball, including picking up the program’s first win in three tries at the Classic in the Country.

“It's good to get invited here, and it feels nice to walk out with a win,” Bourquin said. 

-- Ryan Isley | | @sbliveoh

(Feature image: Tusky Valley head coach Matt Ward talks to his team in a timeout during the opening game of the 2024 Classic in the Country. Photo credit: Ryan Isley, SBLive Sports)