STILLWATER — Stillwater's boys basketball team had every reason to accept this as a rebuilding year.
No returning starters. Nine seniors lost. Inexperience all the way around.
But the Pioneers are 9-2 and ranked No. 7 in Class 6A. They are playing with a purpose. A purpose they carry in their hearts and wear on their backs.
On the back of Stillwater's white, long-sleeved warm-up shirts, the word “Family” is printed in blue.
Beneath it is a picture of the Budkes; a photograph that includes one of the Pioneers' own.
“They think of me, and we all think of each other as family,” said guard Brett Budke, who has had an unimaginably tough sophomore year of high school.
Brett's father, Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke, died with three others in a November plane crash.
The Stillwater boys have dedicated this season to those lost in the crash.
“We have to use this as motivation,” said Stillwater sophomore player Jon Littell, whose father Jim replaced Budke as OSU women's head coach.
“That's what Coach Budke would want us to do.”
After Kurt Budke's death, playing basketball became Brett Budke's escape. Basketball provided an escape from the pain of losing his dad.
“I would come to the court, and they didn't treat me any different,” Brett Budke said. “It was a relief. I could forget everything and just have fun with my friends.”
Brett Budke was in the Pioneers' regular rotation until suffering a torn ACL in December, an injury that has ended his season.
The injury is a tough break for a young man who had already been through so much.
But he's been able to bank on his teammates, and one in particular.
When Kurt Budke and Jim Littell arrived in Stillwater in 2005, their youngest sons of the same age became close.
“We've been friends since we both moved here — best friends, really,” Brett Budke said of Jon Littell.
After the plane crash, the two sophomores leaned on each other, and their basketball team.
“It's been amazing,” Jon Littell said. “I couldn't ask for a better bunch of guys. It was a difficult time for us, but we've just got to stick together like we've been and continue to move forward.”
Under coach Michael Davis, the Pioneers have grieved in a positive way. They have experienced big success.
“They are on a mission right now,” OSU coach Jim Littell said. “This group, whether it's through the motivation or their chemistry or just how hard they play, they've probably far exceeded the expectations that a lot of people hard for them.
“They haven't put any limitations on how far they can go or who they can beat ... This is no disrespect, but they are probably overachieving quite a bit just because of their attitude and effort level.”
Davis said: “We're just one family. Sitting here talking about it, I'm getting emotional, but that's just how much (Kurt Budke) meant to us.”