By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
As a little girl, LaNesha Middleton used to shoot baskets inside Gallagher-Iba Arena with her father, Steve Middleton — an assistant on the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team.
She would dream of playing for the Cowgirls in front of a packed house — her entire family in the stands cheering her on.
Thursday that dream will become a reality when Middleton’s Stephen F. Austin squad battles Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I’m really excited,” LaNesha Middleton said. “It’s just like coming home and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a little different stepping on the floor. I’ll be with a different team and I’m in college now, but I’ve spent many, many hours there shooting with my dad and watching practice. It’s all familiar to me so I can’t wait to get back there.”
Middleton remembers going to Oklahoma State games clad in orange and cheering on her father’s Cowboys. Now the roles will be reversed — only Steve Middleton won’t be wearing the familiar orange of Oklahoma State — trading it in for Stephen F. Austin purple.
“I’ll probably be wearing a little purple,” Steve Middleton said. “I might be neutral but I’ll probably have on one of my purple caps. She bought me a purple SFA hat when we went and visited her and I promised that I would wear it.”
“My parents weren’t sure if they should wear purple or orange, so I think they’re wearing both to support both teams,” LaNesha Middleton said. “It’s going to be great. I’m excited that I get to play in front of my family. My dad hasn’t seen me play yet, so that will be exciting to play in front of him and everyone else in Stillwater.”
Even Middleton’s former high school coach Carl Treat plans on being in attendance. However he didn’t say which colors he will be wearing.
“I’m just going to be happy for whoever is playing,” Treat said. “It’s great for her to be able to come home and play. We’ve had a lot of girls play college ball, but not many have had the chance to play at OSU. She’s there because of the hard work she put in and I think most people in Stillwater are excited to watch her play.”
Middleton’s hard work hasn’t diminished since going to college. As a freshman, she has played in all seven games and started once for the Ladyjacks. She’s averaging 1.9 rebounds and 0.7 points in 9.1 minutes per game.
“Like all freshmen she’s had ups and downs,” Steve Middleton said. “I just tell her that you have to toughen up little buckaroo. You wanted to play Division I basketball, this comes with it. The hard practices, not knowing exactly where you stand and wanting to play more. Those are all learning experiences and life experiences that are invaluable. Those sort of experiences helped me and taught me and allowed me to grow and hopefully they’ll help build character the way that they did for me.”
It’s uncertain if Middleton’s second start will come in a place she called home for so many years. But even if she doesn’t get a chance to start, she’s determined to make the most of her time on the floor.
“It might help me,” LaNesha Middleton said. “I’m definitely familiar with the court and I’ve put up a lot of shots on that court so hopefully it will help me.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m nervous. We’ve had many days to prepare for OSU. I know the game plan and our team knows what we’re going to do out there, so no I’m not really nervous at all.”
One person who is nervous heading into Thursday’s game? Her father.
“Yeah, you know you’re always a little nervous when you see your kid play,” Steve Middleton said. “You want them to do good, but I’ve never been an overly meddling parent. I’m more critical of her. I think as a freshman right now, with the team that they have, she’s just learning. ... She’s really in the adolescence stage of her player development.”
Whether or not Middleton and the Ladyjacks (4-3) can take down the 16th-ranked Cowgirls (6-0) in Gallagher-Iba Arena, the freshman knows that somewhere in the stands a pair of proud parents will be waiting to see and hug their daughter after the game.
“She came home right at the beginning of September and I have not seen her since,” Steve Middleton said. “That’s the longest period of time I’ve gone without seeing my child. The opportunity to spend 10 minutes with her is going to be invaluable to me and my wife. We’re extremely excited to have her come back and see her. Whatever little time we have together will be well worth it.”
Even if it is only for 10 minutes after the game, the elder Middleton said he won’t waste any time telling the freshman how proud he is of her — win or lose.
“I’m as proud as a dad could be,” Steve Middleton said. “It’s just awfully fulfilling to see your child go away from home. She could have easily stayed right here in Stillwater and went to Oklahoma State, but she fell in love with the game and wanted to play basketball at the Division I level. ... Just to see your kid set a goal and achieve it is awfully special. She stepped out there completely and totally on her own to fly and it just warms a parent’s heart.”