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.”