STILLWATER — Toni Young pulls out her white iPhone, wanting to take a moment to remember Miranda Serna.
She quickly finds a saved screen shot of a text conversation the Oklahoma State player and assistant coach had in November 2011. Young had been crying that morning, feeling down on herself. Today, she can't remember exactly why. But Serna was always the person Young turned to when she needed a jolt of support.
“Are you in class?” Serna eventually asked after they exchanged a few messages.
“Yes ma'am,” Young replied.
“Well, finish class and text me after,” Serna wrote.
The next day, a plane crash killed Serna and Cowgirl head coach Kurt Budke.
Young will cap the home portion of her OSU career Saturday, when the Cowgirls face Texas on Senior Day. She'll leave Stillwater as one of only 15 Big 12 players to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. Many fans will likely remember Young for her freakish athleticism, complete with an ability to dunk.
Yet she consistently reflects on her personal growth, which usually stemmed from the relationships with her coaches. She felt an immediate connection with Budke and Serna. Developing a bond with Jim Littell took time.
The plane crash is still a topic that's often tip-toed around when talking to current members of the Cowgirl program. Even more than a year later, each person processes and handles loss, grief and remembrance in a different way.
But Young is open to sharing.
“They played a huge part in my life the whole time I was here,” she said. “So might as well let people know how great they were and how a big a role they played in why I'm still here.”
Young's routine was always the same when she came up to the basketball offices each day.
She'd first give Serna a hug. Then she's say hi to Budke.
She views those two like parents. And she realizes what a challenge that role must have been for Budke and Serna when she first arrived at OSU. She describes herself as “hard-headed” back then, particularly when it came to her lack of interest in schoolwork.
“Coach Budke kept believing in me when some people didn't want to keep me around,” Young said. “(They thought) ‘Well, she's not going to change.' My freshman to my sophomore year, I was the same player. I didn't learn off the court.
“You only get so many chances. With them, I had a million chances.”
And Serna became the person Young leaned on when she needed someone to talk to. She could text Serna in the middle of the night, and she'd get a reply. If Young needed face-to-face conversation, they'd meet at the arena alone.
So that texting conversation during class on that mid-November day in 2011 was nothing out of the ordinary.
But on the morning of Nov. 18, Young abruptly woke up around 4 or 5 a.m. She felt the sudden urge to check on Serna.
“Hey, Coach, are you OK?” Young sent in a text message.
“The first thing that popped into my head was their plane went down,” Young said. “There was no other reasoning in my head. I knew that's what it was. Coach Serna always texts me when I text her …
“Before they even told us, I knew what happened.”
The tragedy deeply affected the entire Cowgirl program. For Young, the season had already featured the challenge of trying to come back from a broken arm. Now she'd lost her two biggest supporters.
“It's one of the hardest thing I've had to go through, not having those two people to come to when I had problems,” Young said. “They were the only two people that I came straight to about anything. It's like losing two parents, losing your mom and dad at the same time …
“You go up there, and their office is cleaned out, their doors are shut. It hit me (when the crash happened), but I don't think it hit me hard when I really needed them.”
Budke and Serna will never be replaced in Young's life.
But she doesn't hesitate when asked who she now most relies on inside the Cowgirl program.
It's a different kind of relationship, because he's a different kind of coach. He won't give a million chances. He won't tolerate a lazy stance on defense or not boxing out for a rebound.
But ultimately, his stern coaching style translates to tough love.
“He constantly pushes me,” Young said. “Me and him, we had our rough time because I was so hard-headed … we actually built a good bond, and now that's the person I go to about anything.”
Young was a bench player for the majority of last season as Littell tried to force her to raise her own expectations. By that February, the coach started to see an improved approach in practice. She was back in the starting lineup by the WNIT, then earned MVP honors after tallying three 20-point games during the Cowgirls' six postseason contests.
“She's got a lot of God-given talent, athleticism, just being able to do a lot of things on the floor,” Littell said. “The way we've approached Toni is that for those who are given more, more is expected.”
Young enters Saturday as the Big 12's leading rebounder (10.2 per game) and fourth-leading scorer (16.5 points per game). But there are still moments when Littell is hard on his top player.
Take last month's home contest against K-State as an example. Littell thought Young had taken too many long fadeaway jumpers in the first half — and let her know about it in the locker room.
Young used that as motivation, finishing with 23 points and 18 rebounds in an OSU blowout victory.
“Every player can't handle a coach being two inches away from your face and just being yelled at,” Young said. “But it's either you respond or you let the first half reflect the second half.
“I just wanted to come out and respond and show him all the chances (he'd) given me, they're not a waste.”
A week later, though, Young and Littell shared a different kind of moment. When Young exited the game in the final minutes of OSU's Bedlam rout of Oklahoma, she and Littell embraced on the sideline for several seconds.
Young has used another passion — art — to honor Budke and Serna for life.
She now has a series of tattoos dedicated to the two coaches. On her chest, there's a dove with clouds in the background, two sets of praying hands on each side and a rosary running down the middle.
Running down her spine is Serna's favorite quote: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope that I have not a single bit of talent left and could say to him, ‘Dear Lord, I used everything you gave me and thank you for all you entrusted in me!'”
In all, those tattoo sessions took about five hours to complete. Soon, she'll add the initials KB and MS to each shoulder.
Budke and Serna will be in Young's heart when she's honored as a departing OSU senior on Saturday. The rest of her Cowgirl family will join her on the Gallagher-Iba Arena floor.
It's a group that helped her learn how to take her academics seriously and remain on track to complete her degree, something Littell admits he wouldn't have necessarily banked on four years ago. And it's a group that helped her overcome a serious injury and evolve into a player that should earn All-Big 12 accolades this season.
But it all started with the belief of Budke and Serna.
That's something Young will keep sharing.
“If it wasn't for them, I would never have had the opportunity to be here,” Young said. “They kept me here. I could have been gone a long time ago.
“There's no point in not showing how much they affected me.”
Young, Keller to be honored
STILLWATER — When Oklahoma State takes the floor against Texas on Saturday, two seniors will be honored in their final home game.
One is Toni Young, the Cowgirls' top scorer and the Big 12's leading rebounder. The other is post Lindsey Keller.
It's been an up-and-down season for Keller. She's battled numerous injuries, including one to the head that has forced her to miss OSU's last three games. And about midway through conference play, she was replaced in the starting lineup by Kendra Suttles.
Still, Keller is known for her toughness inside on both ends of the floor and as a player who will contribute in ways that don't always show up in the box score. She averages 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
"A lot of things that she does are unheralded," Cowgirl coach Jim Littell said earlier this season. "She sets great screens. She defends the toughest post (player) every night. There isn't a lot of glamour in what she does, because she does the dirty work a lot of times."