By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A year later it still seems like a dream to Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Jim Littell.
The call in the middle of the night, the mourning and just the feeling of loss — it all doesn’t seem possible. How could a gentle giant like Kurt Budke, an enthusiastic spirit like Miranda Serna and as dedicated Oklahoma State fans like Paula and Olin Branstetter all be gone?
“It’s been a very emotional week for our players and for our coaches,” Littell said. “We told our players (Thursday) that it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to miss people that are loved ones, and it’s been a tough week. I’m proud of the way our team has hung together and been supportive of each other.”
One year ago Saturday, Oklahoma State lost four members of its family when the Branstetters’ single-engine 1964 Piper PA-28-180 plane crashed in central Arkansas during a recruiting trip.
The pain still stings like a fresh wound for Littell and the Cowgirls, but through the tragedy the Cowgirls have learned the meaning of family.
“Coach Budke and coach Serna were people that were very strong in their faith and their family,” Littell said. “That’s what we’ve got to do right now. We have to be strong in our faith and rely on our family to get us through a difficult time. If your family isn’t around here, then these young ladies have got to rely on their basketball family. They’ve been very supportive of each other, but it has been a very trying and emotional week.”
One glance toward the rafters at Gallagher-Iba Arena and Littell is instantly reminded of Budke and Serna. As he sits in the film room during the day, he’s often overcome with the emotion of seeing an empty chair — a chair that was once occupied by one of his closest friends.
“You think about it constantly,” Littell said. “But I think when it comes around to that date every year, it’s going to be on your mind even more. You could see it at the beginning of the week in the faces of our players, coaches and support staff that it was a little more prevalent on everybody’s mind.”
It takes time to overcome a tragedy of this magnatude — it’s not something that goes away in a year. There will still be tears and moments of mourning.
But having gone through it together as one unit, Littell believes it has made their team that much stronger.
“It’s a combination of (the plane crash) and I think it’s a combination of the type of young ladies we have in our program,” Littell said. “They’re all good people. They respect other people and treat each other in the right fashion. Sometimes adversity does bring you closer together, but we’ve got a lot of quality young ladies within this program that really like each other and care about each other. I really believe that it’s going to be very beneficial to us as the season progresses.”
Another thing that might help the healing process? Coming out to a packed house Sunday when the Cowgirls take on Weber State at 2 p.m. in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
In an effort to drum up support for the Cowgirls, admission to Sunday’s contest will be free. There will also be a banner located in the south entrance of Gallagher-Iba Arena for fans to sign.
“It would be awesome,” Littell said. “I hope that there’s a great turnout. I’m very appreciative of the administration to open the doors up and paying respect to this time of year and respect to the individuals that we lost. I think it would be a tremendous gesture if we had a great turnout from community and surrounding areas to support our players and pay their respects to the loved ones we lost.”