Friday isn’t just the start of a new basketball season in Okarche, it’s the beginning of a brand-new era
As he sits in the lobby of western Oklahoma’s newest mecca for high school basketball and stares out at the court, Rob Friesen is admittedly anxious about Friday night.
That’s when Okarche High School’s gymnasium makes its debut for its intended purpose when the Warrior basketball teams host Preston in the 2019-20 season opener.
“Am I nervous? You bet,” said Friesen, the Okarche superintendent who has seen the project of the new gym every single step of the way from inception to bond issue to reality. “You just hope everything goes off the way it’s supposed to.
“And we hope a lot of people are here to see it.”
Okarche’s impressive facility replaces the sardine can-like gym that has housed Warrior basketball since it was built in the 1940s.
“It was a true home court advantage,” said Kelli Jennings, now entering her third season as the OHS girls coach. “Teams just couldn’t simulate what that gym was like.”
It was small in stature and in measurements.
Okarche’s old court was well under the maximum allowed of 94 feet long and 50 feet wide.
“I measured the new one…walked it off,” said Okarche boys coach Aaron West. “It’s 16 feet longer and two feet wider (than the old one).”
While both coaches know the advantages the “old gym” afforded them and their teams, they look forward to building new ones in the…well, new one.
“We’re on this court every day and this gym is bigger than any other visiting teams are going to play in,” Jennings said. “We’ll have that advantage over them.”
West said the old court actually worked against Okarche teams when they went on the road and played on larger courts.
“We were used to the smaller court and being able to do some of what we wanted, especially on defense,” West said. “Outside of Okarche, we were actually at a disadvantage.”
He no longer expects that to be the case.
“Now we plan to be in much better shape and just wear people down on this bigger court,” he said.
The court is just one of the eye-popping features of the new gym.
From the scoreboards to the appealing lobby to the “O” spelled out in the different colored chair-back seats, Okarche’s tax dollars provided a top-of-the-line facility for its student-athletes.
“About the only thing we could have done different was build six locker rooms instead of four,” Friesen said. “But if we did that, we couldn’t have built a weight room and some other things.
“Six locker rooms would have benefited us about two weeks a year. A weight room is something we’ll use everyday.”
On the court itself, Jennings’ Lady Warriors fi gure to be a part of a deep, wide open field in Class A.
Seiling graduated a large core of the players responsible for winning four straight titles, meaning the rest of the class feels the gold ball is up for grabs.
“We better be right there with them,” Jennings said.
Okarche returns three starters - seniors Rachel McDowell and Raegan Robinson and junior Madison Owens - from a team that was one win shy of the state tournament last season.
Senior Marlo Hunt and sophomore Karsyn Vallerand fi gure to fi ll even bigger roles for the team this season as it tries to get back to the Big House.
“They work so hard and they’re a special group,” Jennings said. “They have a great chemistry and that’s an intangible you can’t coach.”
The Okarche boys program has seen much more turnover.
A lot of it was brought upon by graduation, but the biggest void was dealt by tragedy.
Longtime head coach Ray West, Aaron’s father who won more than 800 games in his storied career, died of cancer just before the school year started.
A memorial service in his honor was the fi rst event held in the new gymnasium earlier this year.
The elder West longed to coach in the new gym, but it will be his son doing so as head coach instead.
“It’s defi nitely different with him not in here, not hearing his voice,” Aaron West said.
Together, the Wests got Okarche to the state semifinals last season, but four starters and some of the top players off the bench graduated.
Kaleb Harris is the lone returning starter. The senior averaged about 15 points a game last season.
“He could easily average 20 this year, but we also need him to make sure others get involved,” West said.
Evan Endres and Logan Kroener came off the bench last year, but will see their roles signifi cantly increase this season.
Outside of that, West will look to a group largely inexperienced at the varsity level.
“This in the most inexperienced team we’ve had here in 20 years,” West said.
“But by the end of the year, I think we can be pretty good.”
Regardless, West is excited to carry on the legacy his father helped build in Okarche.
He’ll just be doing it in a newer – much bigger – gym.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be; I’m invested,” West said. “Good season. Bad season. Doesn’t matter. My goal is to make this team better and we’re going to work hard to do it.”