Here I sit, squished in between a drink cart and a broad-shouldered Aussie in the second-to-last row. I have clear vision of my ten teammates in front of me, and I can’t help but feel this overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
Exactly four years ago to the day, I sat on an almost identical Qantas plane, across from my two teammates Morgan Hook and Maddie Manning. We couldn’t grasp the concept of a 16-hour plane flight, but with the help of Katy Perry, Phil Dunphy, and sleep deprivation, the flight whizzed by.
I remember that trip clear as day.
4 years ago 4 hours ago
I remember that trip clear as day.
I remember idolizing upper-classmen Whitney Hand and Morgan Hook, hoping one day I could positively influence someone the way they did me.
I remember lacing up my crimson shoes to play in my first-ever collegiate basketball game.
I remember experiencing some of the best 10 days of my life.
Much had transpired in the months leading up to that freshman trip.
Let’s flashback to my junior year at Liberty Christian School in Arygle, Texas. I was in a pickle. Where the heck was I going to college?
I somehow narrowed it down to UNC, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma, and Stanford.
As a kid my favorite color was baby blue; my favorite player was Ivory Latta; and a North Carolina men’s National Championship banner was the only decoration my mom hung up on my wall that I actually liked.
After being invited to elite camp my first year of high school, UNC offered me a spot on their roster.
“Dad, I’m going. Done deal. Let me sign the papers.”
“Hold on, toots. You’re only a freshman. You have some time to think about this.”
Come to find out, I couldn’t have been more thankful for a father who had years of experience with the laborious and torturous, yet invigorating and emotional process commonly referred to as college recruitment. Therefore, I took my dad's wisdom to heart, and waited.
He was right. After a few more visits and a few more years of pondering, something didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel at home in Chapel Hill. Visits to the University of Kentucky and mother and father’s alma mater, Vanderbilt University, had similar effects. As much as my dad would have loved, loved, loved for his one and only daughter to play at Vandy, my heart wasn’t in it. My heart was somewhere else.
This left me with two options. Stanford University and The University of Oklahoma.
If anyone knows me well, they know I thrist for adventure. I hunger for travel. I long for change. I didn’t want to go to a school where everyone else went. I wanted to go to a foreign land, far far away, that I had never experienced before. I wanted to be independent and figure things out on my own. I wanted to go to a school that I was proud of, that people were proud of. I wanted people to remember this decision.
All signs pointed to Stanford.
But for some reason this woman, this one woman who goes by the name of Sherri Coale, popped her blonde hair into my life. I couldn’t seem to shake her. Every time I thought I had my mind made up on where I wanted to go to school, I would look down at my phone and there was her name in my iMessages. Each time I told my dad that I had decided, that I was done with the back and forth, I spotted a letter on the counter sealed with the interlocking OU, sent from the one and only. And boy, were those handwritten letters powerful. Those voicemails so goofy and heart felt. (I still have them saved on my phone.) I really liked this woman. She was so relatable. She was so friendly. She was so much like my mother.
Still, my heart was somewhere else. It was somewhere states away. Not a two and a half hour drive from North Texas to Norman.
Fast forward to senior year. Still had no clue where I was going. I spied a camp invitation letter from Stanford under a stack of bills.
That’s when it really set in. Stanford: The Final Fours, the California sunshine, the degree.
Now that’s an institution to be remembered on graduation day.
“Nicole Kornet—Stanford University.”
That was it. That’s what I wanted. That’s what made my heart leap.
I went to elite camp and was fortunate enough to win camper MVP. I looked at my mom after my name was called, and she had that big, ‘ole “I love my children” smile she so frequently boasts. I knew it. She knew it. This was it. This is where I wanted to play college basketball.
After camp, Coach Tara pulled me aside.
“Now Nicole, Stanford is a funny place. I can’t formally offer you a scholarship until admissions accepts you.”
This little sentence changed the course of my senior year.
I had to dedicate myself to this sentence.
I had to commit to retaking the SAT & ACT.
I had to change my schedule and sign up for all AP classes.
I had to sit at my kitchen table with a private tutor for two hours of SAT tutoring every Tuesday night.
I had to get into Stanford.
But bet your bottom dollar that’s what I was going to do. I was not about to chicken out, back down, and tell my dream school “so long, sucker.” A few sacrifices weren’t going to deter me from a decision that could ultimately change the course of my life. I really wanted this.
That was, until I hopped on the plane and looked down at my phone. Another voicemail from Coach Coale.
“What is it with this woman? She is so persistent. How does she always find a way to waltz into my thoughts? And why, why do I like her so much?”
A few months later, I had given it my all. I unhappily endured my two hours of tutoring each week; I filled out my one and only college application; I retook my SAT and ACT, and I waited.I was at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken with my dad, Luke, and John when I got the call.
Coach Tara from Stanford was on the other line.
“Hi Coach! It’s so good to hear from you!”
“Hi Nicole. Admissions contacted me this morning.”
My heart was beating out of my chest.
“Nicole, it wasn’t enough. I’m sorry to say that admissions did not accept you. I begged and pleaded with them, but there is nothing I can do. Admissions controls us here. I truly hope you find what you’re looking for. We’ll always be rooting for you.”
I didn’t get in.
I walked back into Popeye’s and made eye contact with my dad. I lost it. I started bawling. He knew these weren’t happy tears.
For the first time in my life, I felt severe disappointment. I had never really tasted the cold, dank, harsh pang of sadness like I had that day. My life had been so easy until that point. I had pretty much received everything I had always set my heart on. But this time, I came up short.
That night I walked into my dad’s room and took him by the hand, “Drive me to Norman. I know what I have to do.”
God knew what He was doing. He was taking care of me. He had a plan. I just had to trust it.
It was 10:30pm when I rang the doorbell. Coach Coale’s husband answered. He stared at me in bewilderment as if I were some crazy, obsessed fan who wanted to meet his wife. I politely told him I was a recruit and was here to commit.
Coach Coale turned the corner with her hair up in a bun, an oversized t-shirt draped down to her knees, and her house slippers sweeping across the hardwood.
“NICOLE?! What are you doing here??”
“I want to play for the University of Oklahoma, Coach.”
After hugs, kisses, and screams galore, I knew God wanted me here for a reason.
Come signing day my senior year, I remember looking up at my dad as I handed him my scholarship papers to fax in. I looked up at him, caught his eye, and couldn’t hold it in any longer. I started to tear up. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is a special place. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. From the amazing donors, to the fans who brought me in at 18 and loved me like their own, to the coaches who recruited me, to each and every teammate I had over my 3 years, I had some of the best times of my life there.
Coming in as a freshman, I was teamed up with Maddie Manning, Ty Darlington, Madison Ward, Trevor Knight, Julia Doyle, Sterling Shepherd, and Eric Striker. We had each other’s backs. We were a class to be remembered. We were so close. We shared a special bond and all felt an uncanny desire to be great-- to one day make a name for ourselves.
During my freshman year at OU, we played UCLA in Los Angeles. I fell in love. California was my happy place. It reminded me of my dream school. It reminded me of Stanford.
I hurt my knee at the start of the second half. We lost.
If you’ve played college sports, you know the dreaded, long flight home after a loss. This one stung even deeper for me. I remember looking out the window, my knee wrapped up in ice, taking off out of LAX, feeling that similar, eerie, Popeye’s fried chicken-style sting of disappointment.
A few months later into season, we played UCLA again for the Sweet Sixteen. This time, we won.
Sophomore year rolled around. I still couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness I had tried to forget ever since signing day.
I wasn’t happy. As much as I tried to mask it, as great as my coaching staff and friends were, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t face that fact, however. I couldn’t look in the mirror and muster up enough courage to accept it. So, I stuck it out.
“Maybe it will get better as an upperclassman. Maybe junior year will be better.”
Newsflash: junior year didn’t get better. In fact, it got much worse. I completely disconnected myself. I ran away from friends, I pouted, I sulked, I caved. I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t hide it anymore.
Two days before school started, two days before the start of my senior year, I called her. I called Coach Coale, and I asked for my release.
After toiling through the recruitment process yet again, I found myself struggling with the same thing. Kentucky and Vanderbilt offered me scholarships, but I didn’t want familiarity. I wanted to go where my heart had always wanted to go. And without a doubt, that was California.
A few weeks before I needed to make a decision, an unknown number popped up on my phone. I wasn’t able to answer it on time, but luckily a voicemail was there waiting for me. It was Cori Close, head women’s basketball coach of the University of California, Los Angeles. Right then and there I knew.
LA was the answer. LA was my answer.
With the storied background that Coach John Wooden engrained into the world-renowned university, with the significant weight that a UCLA degree carries, with the sunny & 75 picturesque hilltop upon which this campus sits, UCLA in my book is the “cooler” Stanford. It had everything I wanted and more.
God closed a door to open another. He guided my steps, taught me a lesson, proved faithful through it all, and showed me what I truly wanted.
Cori Close, I am forever indebted to you. Because of your willing heart, because you took a leap of faith, because God intervened I am here writing this right now. You made a little girl’s dream come true.
What most caught me off guard, however, were the people. They caught me off guard in the best way. Never had I felt so at home and so in touch with my spiritual life than being with these people. These people make me better. They challenge me, they steer me, they accept me; they love me.
That was the one thing that primarily held me back from leaving Oklahoma any sooner than I did. As much as I wanted California, I was scared of California.
Aren't there crazy people in California? What if they're bad influences on me? What if it's too good to be true?
As I soon found out, all of these preconceived notions could not be further from the truth. My best friends here will be my bridesmaids one day. These teammates of mine are some of the most stunning, athletically gifted, mature women I have ever been around. I honestly can’t believe I get to be apart of this group. As iron sharpens iron, I feel as if I am equipped to do anything and everything in this city, with these people, and at this school. And that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a long, long time.
As I sit in the second-to-last-row on this Qantas Airlines flight, the second time in four years, gazing up at my teammates a few rows ahead…as I let it all sink in…I can’t help but get a quick word in with God.
Thank you. Thank you for making my collegiate athlete dreams a reality. I’m finally where I pictured myself as a little girl. You took the reins, paved a way, and added a little extra flair, Nicole Kornet style, to boot. You never left me through it all. In fact, You guided my footsteps, introduced me to some incredible people along the way, and brought me home. For all of that, I just want to say thank you.