Lady Viking, Lion Heart

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Let’s walk it back a bit.

Let’s rewind 2 ½ half years – to the summer before her sophomore year.

Now, let’s jettison to the RI Girls High School summer league for that year; the league that my niece Josie Chaves had worked so hard to get ready for.

The summer league where she would finally make her debut as a high school basketball player after being sidelined her freshman year by a torn ACL.

When Josie tore her ACL before the start of her freshman season, she was understandably devastated. But what stood out in my mind was the number of people who were devastated for her. The reason that so many ached for Josie, was because they knew what basketball meant to her.

The art of the game
You can teach anyone the game of basketball; how to dribble, shoot, pass, and play defense. These are the mechanics of the game – the things that one can improve upon through practice and hard-work.  Josie Chaves was a quick-study in the mechanics of the game – but what sets a good athlete apart from an exceptional one, are the intangibles – the things you cannot teach – and Josie had all the intangibles.

From early-on, Josie demonstrated a fierce joy of the game that sometimes bewildered coaches and teammates alike.  She worked tirelessly at basketball– not because others demanded it, but because she loved the game – truly loved it.  And you could see that love of game every time she stepped on the court – you could see it in her eyes – in her step – in the way she attacked a defense and ran an offense.  Such a love of game is a rarity in someone so young – and when you mix ingredients of skill, love of game, and a competitive spirit – what you see on the court is artistry and passion. You don’t have to be a fan of basketball to appreciate artistry and passion – artistry and passion transcend sport.  I think this is why so many people fell in love with Josie’s game – her passion always shined through.

The ACL tear in her freshman year disrupted what so many had been waiting to watch – that ACL tear interrupted a narrative – a narrative that so many in the community had become part of. That ACL tear ended the only chance Josie had to play with her older sister, who was a senior when Josie was a freshman.  And now, the summer before her sophomore year, she was ready move on from this disruption – she was ready to get on with her dream of playing basketball for the Vikings of Rogers High School.

And then it happened again.

I remember getting the call from my sister – I remember the despondent crying of my niece in the background.

I remember driving to CCRI to pick up my sister and Josie to drive them to Newport Hospital.

I remember keeping one hand on the steering wheel, and reaching back with the other to hold the hand of my brokenhearted niece.

I remember the unending sobs – the pained expression and streaking tears on my sister’s face as we both listened to Josie say that she could not go through all of this again – that she would never be the same – she would never reach her full potential.

And most of all, I remember how hollow my words sounded as I told Josie she would be OK.

That car was so full of sorrow – we were drowning in it.

I remember sitting in the ER.

I remember the anger setting in – the thought of another season lost to the audible pop and sharp pain in her knee– all of the expectations that had been building since her days of playing at the HUT recreation  center, where strangers would marvel at her tenacity and skill. Back then we knew we were watching something special – and now, for a second time, a devastating knee injury was preventing Josie from realizing her dream – from completing her story.

The road back
And so, it began all over again – another surgery – another missed season – another long and painful rehabilitation. And during that year I watched in wonder as Josie kept positive – kept working hard – Unable to play, she helped coach the Thompson Junior HS team with her father and mother.  And when she was finally cleared to begin workouts, she began the long and arduous road back.

In her junior year, she led a talented group of players to an undefeated regular season and a number 1 seed in the playoffs.  I attended a lot of the games that year – and though Josie was wonderful – at times I saw a weariness born from the weight of expectations and the realization that time was running out.

That season ended with a painful loss in the quarterfinals.  I remember towards the end of that quarterfinal game, Josie looked up into the crowd at her mom – and for the first time ever, I saw an expression in her eyes that I had never seen before – Doubt.

Between her Junior and senior season, Josie kept working on her game – kept exercising those legs – she played in the summer league that year and you could see that she was fully back – she shed the bulky knee brace she wore her junior year and with that came a confidence that was both graceful and reassuring.

The 2013 / 14 Lady Vikings were a talented group, led offensively by three seniors (Josie, Brianne Morgerra, and Elizabeth Jackson) who had played together since middle school.  They were supported defensively by senior Marlen Oliva and Junior Sarah Morris and they had the proverbial spark off the bench in Quiara “Boogie” Brooks.

But make no mistake – the straw that stirred the drink was Josie Chaves – and every team knew it.  Josie had a target on her back the entire season – she was often double teamed and sometimes triple teamed. Opposing coaches would  throw a multitude of junk defenses at Rogers in an attempt to slow her down, or prevent her from getting  her teammates involved – Opposing players tried to get in her head, they bumped her –  knocked her down  – but every time she bounced up – more energetic – never retaliating – always moving forward – with no doubt in her eyes – EVER.

These Lady Vikings were a special team that seemed to have destiny in their corner.  There was a team chemistry that I did not see the year before.  Josie never hesitated to drive and kick the ball out to Elizabeth Jackson – and all season long, Jackson knocked down shots – many of them at critical moments in the game. The inside outside game of Josie and Brianne Morgerra was often unstoppable and a thing to behold.

Despite all of this, you could sense that the fans were always waiting for that other shoe to drop – always an uncomfortable feeling that permeated the stands – that something bad might happen – that perhaps the pressure would get too great and this team would collapse in the playoffs.

The Playoffs
The lady Vikings battled through the playoffs – winning two pressure-packed games – a quarterfinal match against East Greenwich (when Jackson caught fire) and a very exciting semifinal game against a talented Coventry team.  There were times during both of those games when Rogers fell behind. In fact, they were behind late in the Coventry game. Last year’s team might have folded in such a situation – but this team really was different. They never panicked –  they believed in each other – they trusted each other.

In the championship game, Rogers was matched against the number one seeded Saint Rays.  Like Rogers, Saint Rays had finished the season undefeated.  I remember watching Saint Rays warming up before the game. This was an extremely confident team – you could see it in their body language – the way they ran their layup drill – loose and self-assured – they showed no doubt at all.

Saint Rays came out on fire – hitting two deep threes in the opening moments of the game.  I looked around at the nervous faces. Not the faces of the Rogers players – but of the community of fans at the Ryan center – the fans that had been following this team for 4 years – many of them without kids on the team – fans that loved this group of girls – loved their story and wanted so much for this team to finally win that elusive championship. Those 2 quick 3 pointers sent a sharp feeling of dread throughout the crowd of Roger’s fans. But then Elizabeth Jackson hit a three – Brianne made strong move to the basket and was fouled – and Josie simply took over.  On the offensive end she had the ball in her hands the entire game – she controlled the pace – picked apart a much vaunted Saint Rays defense with precision passing – hit a couple of very deep threes and defensively she shut down Saint Ray’s best offensive player. Josie finished with 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 7 steals and was named the tournament MVP.

As the clock was winding down – Coach Frank Brow had pulled all of his starters except for Josie – she had the ball in her hands and was told to toss it out of bounds so that that coach could take her off the floor– If you know Josie, this was no easy task– but she did it and coach Brow met her as she came of the court:

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And then the Hug. Redemption. Joy:

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It has been several weeks since that championship game – but whenever I see this picture I still smile and cry.

To me it is the perfect image – to a perfect ending – of a perfect story.

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