As the 2011-12 season was just about to get under way, Mackenzie Gatchel was an eager sophomore ready to make an impact on the United High girls basketball team.
She broke her leg just days away from the Golden Eagles’ first game.
“I was really disappointed,” Gatchel said, “but I had to see the positives to look forward to.”
It might be hard to believe that’s possible, but as stated before, she was anticipating making an impact on the team. Even with an injury — she did.
“She was like a little coach on the sidelines next to me,” United coach Sam Mathias said. “She got to see what was asked of other players and she understood what we try to do with the team from a different angle.
“It helped her mature a lot quicker than other sophomores do.”
Even though she’d rather have been playing, the time to see how things develop from a different point of view was a benefit for Gatchel.
“It helped me understand the deeper aspects of the game more and everything going into it,” she said.
Seven weeks later, she returned to the lineup — not soon after — senior Ruth Prosko suffered a torn ACL. Just like Gatchel, though, some time on the bench watching was a helpful remedy.
“She really bought into a leadership role,” Mathias said.
Through the injuries and adversity, the Golden Eagles tallied a 21-3 record and a berth in the regional semifinals against Smithville, the undefeated and third-ranked team in Division III.
“They’re accustomed to this position,” Mathias said of the Smithies, who bounced United in the regional semifinal in 2009. “Everything favors them going into it. They haven’t just skated through the season, they’ve earned it.”
But the Golden Eagles’ have earned this, too.
“We play with a lot of heart and a lot of guts,” Mathias said. “You have to be the aggressor and go out and attack other teams.”
A lot of this mentality has stemmed from an extensive workout regimen led by assistant Alan Gatchel, Mackenzie’s father.
“My dad has been making me work out for a long time,” Mackenzie said. “The training with him his crazy. He’s always pushed me and encouraged me to do my best on the court and off the court.
“I always take his criticism, too. I take it as him making me better, not as him pushing me too hard.”
She added that the team has benefitted from her dad’s intense program, physically and mentally. Mathias sees it as a confidence booster.
“The weight program that we’re on makes the girls feel like they’re the strongest team when they step on the floor. It showed in the district final.
“They didn’t feel like they were scared of Ursuline — they felt Ursuline was scared of them.”
Senior Taylor Smith (5-foot-8), who bench presses 215 pounds, bodied up with Ursuline’s Courtney Powell. Up until the fourth quarter, the Memphis prospect was limited to just three points. She finished with 12 points, while Smith had nine with eight rebounds.
“Somebody’s got to back down in a game,” Mathias said. “That will never be us.”