There has been much adversity for the close-knit Century Knights girls basketball team, the toughest coming two years ago when junior teammate Gretchen Brandt was killed in a car accident just three days after practice had started for the season.
The team still says a prayer, "The Game of Life," to honor the memory of Brandt before each game.
"It kind of just brings us together," senior co-captain Maureen Onda said. "We know we're not just playing for ourselves but playing for people that love us. We're playing in honor of her and her memory."
That was a tough time for his players to get through, coach Joel Beard said, but he thinks they dealt with it extremely well.
The players formed a strong bond through that experience and gained perspective. They realize that any obstacle they face pales in comparison.
Those new challenges include injuries to numerous key players this season, including the 5-foot-10 Onda, who is out for at least four weeks because of a stress fracture. Onda, a starting center-forward, was leading the county in rebounding with 10 a game, when she got hurt last week.
"I plan to be back for the end of the season," she said.
Through it all, Century has kept its focus, compiling a 10-5 record and is still considered a favorite to win the county title. Depending on Onda's availability, it also could make strong showing in the Class 2A regionals.
"I have really high expectations," Onda said. "We're all not just basketball players. Everyone on the team is an amazing athlete. If we focus and work hard, we can accomplish a lot."
Team unity certainly isn't a problem. Onda invites her teammates to her house for pre-game parties to watch a movie in an attempt to get "the team pumped up."
"We watched Coach Carter the last game and Varsity Blues the game before that," she said. "We just try to get focused and when we come out of the locker room before games, we try not to be stressed out and not think about what the other team's record is, but what we should do.
"It's not like we only see [and talk to] each other at practice," she added. "Every night I feel like I'm talking to everybody on the team, when I go home from school. It just never stops. We talk on the phone and IM [instant message]."
Stephanie Butschky, the team's other senior co-captain, said the Knights are "always bonding. We're always together."
That does not mean they do not have their disagreements, but the relationships endure. "If someone doesn't agree with something, they can just say it out loud," Butschky said. "They don't have to contain themselves on how they feel."
Onda's injury is a setback, said Beard, because she was not only a force on the boards and in setting screens, but she and Butschky are "probably two of the best co-captains we've had since I've been here and I'm still the original coach from when the school opened six years ago." He said they "have tried to lead kids to work hard and do the right thing."
Butschky, 5 feet 8, is averaging five points and four rebounds and has moved into the starting lineup as a guard since Onda is out.
Although the team is starting three sophomores and a junior, Beard likes their maturity overall.
"They're a real good group of high school kids," he said. "I mean, basketball is important to them, but they also have a life. They have other things they like to do. We don't have any one kid who just plays basketball."
The coach said he encourages his players to be involved "in as many things as you can be involved in because when you graduate, you may never get those opportunities again."
For instance, the team's tallest player and second-leading scorer, 6-foot junior center Julie Nielock, who averages 9.1 points, often arrives 10 minutes late for practice because of her participation in the school orchestra.
The Knights' leading scorer is sophomore forward Steph McLallen, who averages 10.3 points and is considered the team's best shooter. The two other starting sophomores are point guard Katie Schwarzmann (8.8 points per game) and shooting guard Nicole Ruane (7.7 points).
Some of the top reserves are freshman Megan Spencer, who scored 17 points against Westminster, junior forward Hannah Bordner and 5-11 sophomore Melissa Etheridge. Also making contributions to the team's success are reserves Jackie Waterman and Ashley Curco.