STORY BY: NIKKI SHERRILL
PHOTOS BY: JACILYN BRUNS and RUSSELL HEITMANN
During the first rounds of the NAIA Women’s Division II National Basketball Championships, local Sioux City elementary school students are heard cheering for a team unknown to them; maybe due to the color of their jersey, or the team just has a fun mascot name. However, during a 2016 first round matchup against No. 2 St. Francis and No. 7 Asbury, a different reason inspired the cheers.
“All for Four” may not be a cheer that has any meaning for those kids, but for the Asbury Eagles on the bench, it meant everything.
“That has been our motto the whole year. It was really special to hear those kids cheering that and cheering us on at that moment,” said Asbury junior Brittany Warren.
This motto came from a story that this group of girls have been trying to tell to anyone that they can. During their spring break of 2015, Asbury was devastated by news that a friend and teammate had become sick with an unknown illness.
“At that point it had taken a while to really figure out what was wrong with her, and in June it looked like she was improving. They had kind of had gotten a diagnosis and had a plan to try and treat things for her,” said head coach Tim Brown.
Molly Harlin, a sophomore at Asbury at the time, was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, a condition of unknown cause involving the central nervous system. Even though the prognosis was looking up for Harlin, she had a seizure in June of 2015, which led to her unexpected death.
“It looked like things were moving in the right direction and then suddenly they weren’t. It was very sudden and it was just very heartbreaking for our players to deal with,” said Brown.
For this group of girls at Asbury, this loss was about more than losing someone close to them. Brown knew how close and connected all of the girls on his team were, and adding this crisis to that team chemistry could have broken them.
“Some schools, teammates are their teammates, but they are not friends and they definitely are not deep friends. But we had some incredibly close relationships with Molly and she was just one of the sweetest people that you will ever meet so it was a tremendous loss,” said Brown.
Brown accredited Harlin with being the Eagle’s best three point shooter and somebody who could always give them the offensive spark that they needed right off the bench. That spark was evident in the first round game for the Eagles at the 2016 National Championship, as Asbury fell behind quickly. They did not give up though, as they looked right where they needed to be able to overcome the deficit.
“Her not being there contributed to our slow start. But then it gave us tremendous motivation knowing that she’s up watching us. People say that we lost a player, but we didn’t lose a player, we know exactly where she is and that she is at the right hand of our savior and she is up there rooting us on and that has just given us strength to stick together and get through adversity and that really came through when we needed it to,” said Brown.
Harlin’s teammates never gave up their faith that she would be right there with them through every journey they would take the first season without her on the bench. The Eagles never lowered their expectations for themselves this season, knowing they had someone watching over them who needed them to keep fighting.
“This whole season has been for her. We wanted to win for her. We won a conference championship but we aren’t done. We just want to win as much as we can for her,” said Warren. It was very hard on all of us as you can imagine. But we just changed our focus to just playing for her and to honor her,” said Warren.
For all of the Eagles and their coaching staff, they know the importance of reaching out to others to help tell their journey. Brown knows that Harlin would want people to be able to be open and tell her story without being angry that she is no longer with them.
“She knows where she is, and we know where she is and the opportunity to share her story with people is a great opportunity,” said Brown.
Even though Asbury fell behind early in their first round matchup against No. 2 St. Francis, they used their strength from above to pull off an upset over the Saints, winning 63-60, and advancing to their first second round game in program history. Warren, and the whole Asbury team, knows that this tragedy could have crushed their spirits and hurt their season; but with someone watching over them, that was never an option.
“I’m really proud of all of us and with everything we have been through we have stuck together,” said Warren. “We are just a family and I think that helps a lot more than anything.”