Hayden Loving basketball turned out to be more painful than Grace Wilkie ever expected.
The Hayden High School senior had a plan for how her final high school basketball season was supposed to end — with a championship.
Wilkie has been a voracious basketball player since she first bounced into the sport as a second-grader playing club basketball in her then-hometown of Calhan, near Colorado Springs.
Her Routt County basketball roots go back considerably further than that.
Her mother and current coach in Hayden, Michelle Wilkie, was a three-sport star at Steamboat Springs High School while her grandfather, Bob Harris, has been one of the most prolific high school sports coaches in Routt County history and was at the helm the only time a Steamboat Springs team has ever won a basketball state championship, in 1971.
That genealogy laid the foundation for Grace’s expectations, and she built them herself.
She wanted to win championships and be the star of the team when it happened. She wanted to be one of the best in the high school ranks, and she didn’t just want to go play college basketball, she wanted to play for the best.
“It was her life,” Michelle Wilkie said. “That was her thing. She was going to play at Connecticut for Geno Auriemma.
Her career will end before college, however, and it won’t end with a championship. In fact, it may very well end this week. The Tigers play at home against Caprock Academy at 4 p.m. Monday in the pigtail game of the District 5 tournament.
It’s not a gimme game, but the Tigers, 6-12 on the season, won the last matchup 68-18.
The winner of Monday’s game will advance to play Wednesday at Soroco, 17-2 and winner — 85-36 — the last time it met with Hayden (albeit in a game where the Tigers were without their top two scorers.)
For many, high school and college are about finding who you are.
For Grace Wilkie, high school helped her find out who she wasn’t.
She’s not the basketball player she always dreamed of being.
She’s tenacious on the court. She’s quick with her feet and, in her words, “has good handles.” But, she’s also dealt with injuries throughout her basketball career that have robbed her of many games before and during high school.
From an ankle she broke twice in middle school to a small stress fracture she sustained in her back this summer doing chores on her family’s rural Routt County farm — with plenty of related injuries between — she’s struggled just to stay on the court.
She’s spent much of her career chasing, perhaps a bit too quickly at times, recovery. It wasn’t until midway through this season it really sunk in that she was never going to catch it.
She logged more assists, 11, than points, 10, in that lopsided win against Caprock earlier in the season. That’s a good day on the basketball court, by any measure, but wasn’t the kind of strong day she envisioned.
“I’m really able to persist and get points, but it’s not as easy as it should be,” she said. “I should be able to convert a lot more, but I don’t.”
That’s a pretty harsh self-assessment, but no one thinks more about Wilkie’s game than Wilkie.
“I’m harder on myself than anyone else is. … I’m a head case,” she said. “I put too much pressure on myself, and I let it dominate my ability to score.”
Most adjust their dreams as they grow up. The finite number of astronauts and Olympic gold medalists is proof enough of that.
Wilkie had to, as well.
Even when this season started, she still harbored hopes of playing college basketball, but now, she knows she won’t. She’s hasn't simply resigned to that fate, though. Despite the sport being a defining characteristic of her life for so long, she’s ready to embrace that fate: a life with basketball, at the very least, on the sideline.
She’s attending George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, simply as a student. She wants to be an English teacher, and yes, she does want to follow in one family legacy. She wants to coach someday.
She also wants to dive into missionary work, inspired by Hayden High School English teacher Kendra DeMicco. She hopes to make a trip abroad this summer, perhaps to Turkey.
“I’m just trying to follow my heart right now,” she said.
Accepting that has actually taken some of her self-imposed pressure away, and she’s actually played some of the best games of her career in recent weeks.
She always saw herself as a scorer but approached the end of her senior season with a career high of 13 points in a game. She scored 18 senior night in a big win against Plateau Valley, however.
A week later, she poured in 16 in a win against De Beque.
“It wasn’t about me. It was about what my teammates did for me,” she said. “They took a lot of pressure off of me.”
She points to those teammates often, mostly fellow seniors Darian Murphy, Jessika Hockett and Brooke Munden.
They haven’t had the best best high school career together. To this point they have a cumulative record of 25-49. Still, Michelle Wilkie said the group has been instrumental in rebuilding a culture of basketball and success within the program.
“That’s our main goal now,” Grace said. “Yeah, we want to be good now, but we want to be good for years.”
They’ll play their last game soon, and Grace’s career as a basketball player will be over.
She endured four years to get to this point, ups and downs and heartbreaks and injuries, but she said when it’s finally over, she’ll be OK with it.
That’s actually proven a relief.
“I was able to realize there are so much more important things than basketball in the world, at least to me,” she said. “I play basketball to have fun, and I’m finally able to have fun with the game.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9