Posted: Tuesday May 17, 2011 10:21AM ; Updated: Tuesday May 17, 2011 11:59AM
Andy Glockner
Andy Glockner>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Houston Baptist's toughest year (cont.)

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Eiley (center) often does things that remind Steven and Sherry Key of Emma.
Eiley (center) often does things that remind Steven and Sherry Key of Emma.
Andy Glockner/SI

Sherry continued to improve physically and her alertness and memory retention increased as well. While encouraging for her long-term recovery, her progress was pushing Steven toward an emotional moment. As June turned to July, Sherry started to ask (and, more important, remembered asking) why her daughters hadn't come to see her in the hospital. She still didn't know Emma was dead.

Steven doesn't remember much of what he said on July 10, when he finally told his wife. He just recalls that Sherry knew as soon as he said a small prayer at her bedside and then looked up into her eyes, which already were filling with tears.

"She just kind of woke up and everything was all right, except for the worst news she ever got in her life," Steven said of that day. "That's why I've always said it was the best day and the worst day of my life. The best day because I finally got my wife back. But the worst day because I had to tell my best friend the worst possible news."

Six days later, Sherry came home. When their car pulled up to their driveway, she noticed that ribbons had been tied around two of the trees in their front yard and noted aloud how they were in the colors of Fielder Elementary School before realizing why they were there. A few seconds later, an ebullient Eiley bounded out of the house to welcome her mother. The future for the Key family, set in motion in an instant two months earlier, had finally arrived.

*****

Ron Cottrell is well-versed in the concept of family, having two teenage daughters of his own and running a basketball program that hawks it as a virtue. While tons of recruiting pitches use the term family to define the atmosphere at a particular program, the spiritual nature of Houston Baptist as a university and the smallness of the campus make it a truism for the team. Everyone in the athletic department pretty much knows everyone else, which is why Emma's death hit them so hard.

For Cottrell (pronounced COT-truhl), it resonated deeply because of how he had seen Emma follow in the growth footprints of his own daughters. Everything that he and his girls experienced, whether related to the basketball program or just as a family, he got to see again a handful of years later through Emma's relationship with Steven. Now the little girl who would hand out snacks and water to the homeless is no longer around, though memories of her remain vivid.

"She had an unbelievable impact on people," Cottrell said. "Sunday school teachers, classroom teachers, her classmates -- at a very, very young age -- and I can't help but believe that happened because the Lord knew she wasn't going to be around very long."

Cottrell, a deacon at his own church, also knows about faith in a basketball sense. He was hired by the school in the fall of 1990 to restart the program for the 1991-92 season after the school's president had shut it down. Just five years before that decision, the Huskies had won the TAAC (now Atlantic Sun) tournament title and made the program's only NCAA tournament appearance. Now they were starting virtually from scratch after a two-year blackout, as only one player remained on campus from the old Division I team.

The former assistant to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas quickly built the Huskies into an NAIA power, eventually winning nine straight Red River Athletic Conference championships before making the leap back to NCAA Division I for the 2007-08 season. HBU has made some decent progress thus far, but Cottrell understands the significant challenges ahead, with two primary ones being the financing and construction of a new on-campus arena and landing in a more prestigious (and geographically suitable) league than the Great West Conference.

Houston Baptist's current home, the 1,500-seat Sharp Gym, won't help the school move up the Division I ranks.
Houston Baptist's current home, the 1,500-seat Sharp Gym, won't help the school move up the Division I ranks.
Andy Glockner/SI

Now finished with the NCAA's four-year transitional period, HBU can market itself as a full-fledged Division I member, which combined with access to the large Houston market, should be inviting to suitors. The team's current home, however -- 1,500-seat Sharp Gym, the site of 60 consecutive victories during the NAIA days -- won't help the university in the ongoing high-stakes conference realignment game.

Technically speaking, Cottrell can now sell recruits on the chance to play in the NCAA tournament, but since the Great West doesn't receive an automatic bid, the Huskies' only path right now is as an at-large, which is to say really no path at all. As important for a small, private school that had to greatly expand its athletics department to meet Division I requirements, the travel in a league that has other members in New Jersey, Illinois, both Dakotas and Utah is a huge expense and burden on the student-athletes.

 
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