The Times West Virginian

Sports

March 6, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Lady Mountaineers will always remember their senior season

MORGANTOWN — Taylor Palmer was following a much-traveled path when she packed up her gym shoes four years ago and left Mount Vernon, N.Y., for Morgantown to play basketball.

Lowes Moore and Kevin Jones had both done the same thing and become two of the greatest players West Virginia University had ever produced, each not only playing the game the way it should be played but living life the way it should be lived.

Others had leaked out of Mount Vernon over the years to find success, the likes of athletes Damion Easley, Ben Gordon, Rodney and Scooter McCray, Floyd Patterson, Ken Singleton and Gus Williams, among others along with such show business luminaries as Denzel Washington, Art Carney, Dick Clark, rapper DMZ, DJ Eddie F, Robin Givens, Rapper Heavy D, Sidney Portier and Phylicia Rashad.

Mount Vernon borders on the Bronx, N.Y., and while taking on some suburban qualities it is city first, and Taylor Palmer was a city girl.

Upon arriving at WVU she was put in the dorms with another young lady from the area who was here to play basketball, Brooke Hampton, who was from maybe 60 miles – and two or three planes — away in Colts Neck, N.J.

Colts Neck is a small, central Jersey community not far from the Jersey Shore, but unlike the very middle class town of Mount Vernon it had been ranked in the 2000 census 39th among the highest-income place in the United States.

In this place, when they listen to Bruce Springsteen sing, it’s live, for he owns the town’s largest equestrian farm and built his home on that farm. In fact, he recorded a large part of the legendary album Nebraska in a house he had rented in Colts Neck.

For a town of just 10,000, its share of celebrities find their way there like Queen Lathifa, Heather Locklear, Jacquie Lee, Patti Scialfa of the E-Street Band, basketball commentator Jim Nance and former football player Joe Klecko.

Early on, Taylor Palmer and Brooke Hampton did not get along too well.

A lot of adjusting, you know, coming out an atmosphere like Mount Vernon and being tossed with a kid from a rich Jersey Shore city in a town like Morgantown.

Then, one day … well, let’s allow Taylor Palmer to tell the story.

“It was crazy. We were in the dorms the first summer and she played a song that I just didn’t expect her to even know,” Palmer recalled with a giggle. “Then we just started talking and we clicked instantly.”

No one’s sure now what it was, but there is a whole lot of distance between Jersey’s Springsteen and Mount Vernon’s DMZ.

From that point on, the magic of being teammates and college friends took hold.

“We called each other ‘Salt and Pepper, partners in crime,’” Palmer said.

They became inseparable. You saw one, you saw the other … and often it was partners in crime … not crime of the criminal variety but the school girl kind of crime that make college days so memorable.

“To this day she is definitely like my best friend,” Palmer admitted.

And the magic was happening everywhere throughout the team. They were freshmen at the start, but grew a little bigger, a little better and whole lot closer as each year went by.

You had Palmer and Hampton and Jess Harlee, joined by Florida transfer Christal Caldwell and then Asya Bussie, who had been a year ahead of them but went down with knee surgery and had to postpone her senior season, becoming an honorary member of this senior class.

Talent-wise Bussie was what the group lacked to be a championship contender, her size, defensive ability and leadership taking them over the top.

They merged into one, as unselfish a team in as selfish a sport as maybe ever could have been conceived. This wasn’t Robin Hood’s band of Merrymen, “All for One and One for All.”

This was “All for All.”

Period.

“Being a part of a team can be a great thing,” said Caldwell. “It teaches you so much about yourself and it just helps you grow as a person. Not only as a basketball player, but you can take some of the things that you’ve learned out here with your teammates and take it and relate it to life. I’ve learned a lot from Coach (Mike) Carey. I think he’s prepared me a lot for what’s going to happen in the real world.”

What they don’t yet understand is that it is something that will stay with them and have more meaning than they can ever imagine.

The championship, of course, is nice but it is a thing. It might even grow over the next month of March Madness to a Big 12 Tournament title and who knows what kind of run awaits in the NCAAs, but years later those are just going to be things to talk about.

What will be remembered is the moment when Jess Harlee yanked the blue cover off the Big 12 trophy at midcourt, standing there and holding that piece of hardware aloft as a group, climbing the ladder as Queen sang “We Are the Champions” through the Coliseum speaker system, taking a nip at the net, then turning it over to the next girl.

They will find, when they get together, that they laugh about the hard times during which they cried and realize how much one meant to the other in getting past the bad times and turning them into a championship season.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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