OKARCHE — Dressed in her basketball uniform and her team’s signature black knee pads, Rae Grellner stepped to midcourt at the Big House.
She didn’t have a basketball.
She had a violin.
A year ago this week, the curly haired brunette performed the national anthem before the Class A girls basketball state championship game, then went out and won a title with her Okarche High teammates. It was a feel-good story, one of those how-about-that moments. But it was also a reminder that bigger isn’t always better.
As the state basketball tournaments begin for our smallest schools, places like Arkoma and Red Oak and Tipton and, yes, Okarche take center stage. Most count their population by the hundreds, their high school classes by the tens and their stoplights by the single digits, if they have any at all.
But as Rae Grellner showed us, good things can come in small-school packages.
Grellner was 6 years old when her older brother brought home a rented violin. He played the piano, but over the Christmas break, he decided he wanted to try his hand at violin. It didn’t stick with him.
Rae was a different story.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said.
A few weeks later, she took her first lesson, and she’s been taking them weekly since then. But since Okarche has no orchestra program, she has always worked with private teachers in the Oklahoma City area. That has meant a 45-minute drive into the metro and a 45-minute drive back home at least once a week.
She did whatever it took.
Same went for practice. She spends a minimum of an hour a day practicing, but most days, it’s two hours. First, she does scales — “Lots of scales,” she said — then moves to arpeggios and etudes. Once she finishes her technical exercises, she digs into the music that she’s working on. She always has two pieces that she’s trying to perfect, one that’s up-tempo and one that’s slower.
Her latest: Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 and Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2.
Grellner, who toured Europe with the Oklahoma Youth Orchestra last summer and has been selected to the North Central Honors Orchestra, played those two pieces in auditions for college scholarships.
Do yourself a favor and Google them. You’ll see how difficult they are.
The national anthem, by comparison, doesn’t seem so hard.
Grellner started performing the anthem before games at Okarche as a sophomore, and when the team made the state finals that season, she performed before the title game at the Big House. It was the biggest crowd she’d ever played for.
She was nervous.
But last season, when she performed the anthem before the finals again, she was an even bigger bundle of nerves. Not because thousands of people were watching her play violin, though.
“I was a lot more nervous for the game,” she said. “I just wanted to win so bad because the year before we lost it.”
Plus, Grellner was a starter last season after being a reserve the year before. But only a few minutes after finishing her beautiful performance of the anthem, handing off her violin and being introduced with the rest of her teammates, she nailed a couple of early 3-pointers that set the tone in a game that Okarche would win going away.
Grellner, by the way, isn’t much of a scorer.
“Defense, that’s what I do,” she said. “That’s what I love. I actually love it a lot more than offense.”
She’s averaging only 2.4 points a game this season, the lowest of any Okarche starter, but she beams as she describes what she does on defense. When Okarche plays a diamond-and-one, she is the one. She gets to chase and hound and guard the opponent’s star.
“Rae knows her role well, plays her role well,” legendary Okarche coach Cherie Myers said.
Even when Grellner plays the anthem, she quickly transitions into basketball mode.
“It’s a pretty good life lesson to learn,” Myers said. “You focus here, then you step across the line and go focus on something else.”
Most of the players at Okarche perform in all sorts of different arenas. They do mock trial. They raise livestock. They play other sports. They are encouraged to get involved, and at a small school, they have the opportunity to do a bunch of different things.
They can be good at them, too.
Rae Grellner doesn’t know if she’ll be performing at the Big House during the state tournament again this week. She wants to do it again, but she’s heard that the activities association would like her to play next week during the big-class tournaments.
After all, she played the anthem before a Thunder game a few weeks after state last March. Why not put her talents to use when the bigger schools are in town?
“But I really want to play for mine,” Grellner said. “It’s just special.”
Bigger, after all, isn’t always better.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.