Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SPORTS >> Birdsong beats cancer to coach

Leader sports editor

HOT SPRINGS — Searcy coach Michelle Birdsong didn’t try to put her team’s state finals loss in perspective Saturday.

Birdsong would have been within her rights — more so than most people — to say, “It’s just a game. There are more important things to worry about.”

But, after Watson Chapel beat Searcy 51-42 in the girls 6A championship at Summit Arena, Birdsong didn’t say those things.

Her players were hurting and she was allowing them to hurt.

Disappointment is part of life, and for Birdsong, a breast cancer survivor, so is basketball, with all its thrills and even the kind of heartache the Lady Lions experienced Saturday.

Watson Chapel took advantage of foul trouble to senior forwards Lauren Harrison and Kristen Celsor and outscored Searcy 18-8 in the fourth quarter, which began with Searcy leading 34-33, to take the victory.

Despite all she has been through since August of 2008, Birdsong made no bones about wanting the victory and her disappointment in the loss afterward.

“This is something I really wanted for these girls because this senior group is such a special group of girls,” Birdsong said in the hallway outside the locker room, where her players tearfully returned after the post game interviews.

“They’re great athletes, they’re great people, they’re great students and so I’m just real proud of everything that they’ve done” Birdsong said.

This year’s players brought Searcy as close as it has come to a state basketball title of any kind since the Lady Lions won the Class AAA championship in 1985.

That alone would make the group special — especially seniors Harrison, Celsor and guard Caleigh Woodruff — but as Birdsong recovered, the Lady Lions began to mean even more to her.

“I tried to get back as quickly as I could because I wanted them to know how important they are to me,” Birdsong said. “And so a week after my surgery, I was back in practice. They’re a special group to me and I wanted to be there with them.”

Birdsong, a mother of twin boys, was diagnosed late last August and had a double mastectomy requiring three surgeries.

“I guess you could have a little self pity and just lay around,” Birdsong said. “But when you’ve got kids like this to get back to it makes it a lot easier.”

Indeed. Birdsong, whose team lost in the first round of last year’s state tournament, was so anxious to return to the gym and her players she was willing to endure pain that might have kept others on the sideline.

“I’m a tough bird,” Birdsong said. “It was a little rough. The bus rides. So I would just take two pillows and put one under each arm and go on with it.”

It helped to have a veteran team of which Birdsong was not only personally fond, but a team that looked to the coach like a 6A-East Conference contender, if not a state champion. And there is no measuring the positive benefits of being around motivated, young people Birdsong said.

“I think that was a big part of it,” she said. “I felt like I needed to get back for them but I think I probably needed to get back for me more than anything else. And just being in there with them every day, it gives you something to look forward to.”

Birdsong, in her fifth year at Searcy, participated as a walker in the Little Rock version of the Susan G. Komen Race For the Cure in October.

She has a history of cancer in her family, and events like the race —?and breast cancer awareness games in which basketball players, male and female, wear pink uniforms or accessories — have a special meaning.

“It makes me feel real good,” Birdsong said. “My mother is also a breast cancer survivor. I have two aunts and a great grandmother that had breast cancer so it’s a big deal to our family.”

Birdsong admitted her battle with cancer had changed her and had caused her to reassess her priorities, but basketball remains as one of those priorities.

“Well, I went through all that last year and so that kind of gave me a whole new outlook on what’s important, what’s not,”

Birdsong said. “But you know, really, this year I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve kind of beat it and I’ve gone on.”

And despite all the basketball talk, never doubt what Birdsong’s biggest priority is. After Saturday’s game, she mentioned her boys Hunter and Haden, both 13.

“I have two kids and just to spend more time with them,” Birdsong said, unable to finish.

Then, like the “tough bird” she is, Birdsong let a tear glisten in her eye, but she didn’t let it fall.