A state title for Cherokee Lady Braves basketball team is a win for whole region

SLAM DUNK: The Lady Braves won a state championship for the first time since 1996. Photo courtesy of Ann Gardner

by Laura Hackett, bpr.org

When the Cherokee Lady Braves clinched the 1A state title for high school women’s basketball, it was bigger than the team.

“We felt like we were bringing something that the whole nation had fought for,” Lady Braves coach Ann Gardner said, referring to the Eastern Band of Cherokee. “These girls don’t just play for themselves. They play for all of those that are around them and all those that have come before them … for their love of their nation, the love for their tribe, the love for their elders.”

The championship game was a larger-than-life community affair. The team represents the only high school on the Qualla Boundary, the home of the federally recognized tribe of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

For junior forward Kyla Moore, their bond transcends what you’d see on a typical sports team.

“Just going back to the Trail of Tears … we are one. We were united as one. We do everything together. We travel together. We support one another. We’re just always there,” she said. “And there’s not really, you know, like any other way to describe it except we’re going to be there for one another.”

Hundreds of Cherokee residents piled into buses to pack the stands in Winston-Salem on game day, hoping for the first championship win since the Lady Braves took home the title in 1996. Those who couldn’t make the trip watched a livestream of the game at the local movie theater or at one of the several local restaurants screening it.

Professional athletes cheered the Lady Braves along. Former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis sent the squad a video pep talk, and retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal celebrated the team’s state title in an Instagram post.

The Lady Braves’ victory was resounding. The team handled the East Columbus Gators 74-32 in the March 15 contest at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. The game, like several Lady Braves’ contests this season, ended with a running clock, something that only happens if a team leads by 40 or more points.

The Lady Braves returned to the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina after the win to a hero’s welcome. Cheering crowds formed a parade through the center of town with banners and signs while players carried trophies and medals around their necks.

Weeks later, the glow of victory persists. Handmade signs and posters cheering on the team remain hung up around town — at local businesses and in the street.

Moore said that her favorite Mexican restaurant got a new paint job to match the Lady Braves’ team colors of gold and maroon.

“It’s pretty cool,” Moore said. “It just reminds us that, oh, we actually accomplished this.”

For many of the players, this year’s title is a culmination of more than a decade of teamwork.

“This is a very special group of young ladies,” Gardner said. “They have played together since they were in peewees, the majority of them, and they have adopted their style of play from a very young age and have been able to foster that through their high school days.”

The Lady Braves got a special boost from the 1996 championship team, with two former players, Peaches Squirrell and Caroline Hyatt, offering coaching support.

“[Hyatt] told us in the locker room that we were one of the elite Lady Braves, and it’s just crazy that there’s only two teams in this whole world that have won a state championship as a Lady Brave,” freshman point guard Daisee Fourkiller-Raby said.

Now, Fourkiller-Raby and her teammates see their roles as inspiration for future Lady Braves.

“A lot of these girls grew up looking at the older Lady Braves, and now they’re the ones being looked up to,” Gardner said.

Cherokee isn’t the only place the team is making a permanent mark.

Coach Gardner promised her players she would get a tattoo — her first — if they won the state championship. One of the players is designing the tattoo image, Gardner said.

“It’s a picture of all of the girls and their championship holding their posters and all that,” Gardner explained. “It’s really, really magnificent; it’s some fantastic work, but I said it was a little large for this go-around.”

A tattoo is a big commitment, Gardner acknowledged, but she said she’s proud to do it.

“These girls have touched my life. And I would wear it proudly, for sure,” she said.


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