The Marion County girls basketball team is still playing with heart even in the midst of a losing funk this season.
Payton Hays and Sadie Spratt walked off the court Monday night just like they have done for the better part of three years — exhausted, sore and a little bruised.
The pair of Marion County junior basketball players played all 32 minutes in a loss to visiting Scotland County.
It was the 17th loss of the season for the Lady Mustangs, in 17 games.
But what the scoreboard does not show every night Marion County steps out onto the court is the amount of heart Hays, Spratt and the rest of the Lady Mustangs display.
Currently the Lady Mustangs have just six players in uniform. A seventh player, Aimee Glaspie, has been sidelined the past month with a concussion.
But the short numbers are nothing new for the team.
“The short-handed part, we have kind of been used to that in my four years here,” Lady Mustangs coach Megan Zook said. “Since I have been here we have averaged 5-7 girls and only about two have had any varsity experience.”
With the short numbers and not a lot of experience, Hays and Spratt hardly ever leave the court. Opposing teams also know who the best two players are for the Lady Mustangs. The Marion County standouts often draw double- and sometimes triple-teams whenever they touch the ball.
But all the attention has not kept Hays and Spatt from getting points. Hays is averaging a double-double on the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Spratt tosses in nine points per night.
The lack of scoring from the other three positions on the court has led to numerous lopsided losses this season.
“Everyone knows who are top two girls are, that’s no secret,” Zook said. “We just have to have others step up.”
Hays mentioned the biggest problem created by the lack of numbers presents itself during practice.
“It’s difficult 'cause we don’t really have a bench to scrimmage against, we are just kind of going through the motions,” she said. “I think if we had more players we could execute more because we would be facing more game-like situations.”
Zook has tried to come up with a solution.
“We have to get creative sometimes with our practices, so we try and bring in our junior high girls to help out,” the Lady Mustangs coach said. “It’s hard to get things done with just the six on our team, but this is not the first year we have had to do this. We just try and make the best out of our 90-minute practices.”
Although as Zook pointed out it’s not the first year the Mustangs have had to deal with the low numbers, it may be the last time. At least for a few years.
“We have a big eighth grade class coming in for next year and our overall junior high numbers are good,” the coach stated. “So help is on the way, but we are not looking past this year. We still want to be able to finish strong.”
The lack of wins has not kept the Mustang faithful from coming out in droves each and every night. The community has rallied around the efforts of the six girls on a nightly basis, which creates one of the loudest home venues in the area.
“It’s no secret the team has struggled,” Marion County Principal and Athletic Director Jason Keilholz said. “But it doesn’t matter to the community. They never have to question the effort the team is putting out every night. Our kids and our community, they all just have a lot of pride.”
All coaches would like to see more wins. But for Zook, she does not want wins to make her own resume look better. She wants it for the kids.
“What they are going through, it’s tough,” the Lady Mustangs coach said. “But I can’t take anything away from my girls, they work hard and they show up every day in practice. They have big hearts and they want to get the job done. And I want nothing more for them than for their hard work to be rewarded.”
So what keeps the team going?
Hays, who goes through much of the same thing during softball and track season, mentioned the team just plays for one another.
“It’s hard to get through, but we really just try and lean on each other,” the junior four-sport athlete said. “We want to play for each other and that’s what keeps us pushing forward.”
Rounding out the roster are Delaney Huffman, Jordan Chatfield, Makenzie Crook and Elizabeth Corey.
The effort from each player on the team makes Keilholz burst with pride.
“What they are doing just shows what caliber of kids we have here at Marion County,” the administrator said. “It doesn’t matter if you look at us on an athletic field, up and down the hallway or in the classroom, they all are just good kids, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”