Tipton girls basketball point guard Caroline Combs began her senior season under the worst circumstances.
A few days before the Nov. 3 scheduled start of practices, Tipton junior football player Chad Stover, Caroline’s boyfriend, was seriously injured during a district playoff game at Jennie Jaynes Stadium.
Over the next two weeks, as red ribbons popped up throughout Tipton and #PrayFor18 trended on Twitter, Caroline settled into a new routine. She practiced after school, the went straight from practice to the hospital. She would stay there until 9 p.m., then head home and go straight to bed.
“It was a constant boost to the day to get to the hospital as fast as possible,” she said. “You’d get a boost of energy just to see him. Sometimes you’d feel it, just sitting in the waiting room you’d get tired. Sometimes until I’d go in there I just slept. I was either doing homework or sleeping.”
They had known each other through school for years, but after Caroline was named Courtwarming Princess last year, the two started talking.
She says her memories of him include “how easy going he was, how laid back he was.”
She also remembers how much the Tipton football and baseball player loved sports.
“It didn’t matter what sport it was, he liked it,” she said. “That was kind of our way of connecting.”
With Chad in the hospital and the entire school and town reeling, the first day of practice was pushed back a couple of days. Girls basketball coach Jason Culpepper had the team in for an optional practice Nov. 5.
“It was one of those things where no one knows the best way to deal with it and there’s not a great way to deal with it,” Culpepper said. “We also thought about the kids as far as giving them something to do to get their minds off of what was going on. It was a delicate situation of trying to start a season while realizing there are things in life bigger than sports.”
Culpepper and his coaching staff did whatever they could to give the players something to do to keep their minds off Chad. For Caroline, that was especially important.
“It was a stress reliever,” she said. “I didn’t have to focus on homework or I didn’t have to focus on what I needed to do, I just went straight to practice.”
Basketball served another purpose for Caroline as well.
“I could run and get all my anger out,” she said. “Or we’d be playing defense and I would put full force into playing defense because I was so angry all the time.”
She admits that sometimes that anger resulted in plays where, if it had been a game instead of practice, she would have been called for a foul, but she knew those players she was guarding were her teammates.
“I didn’t want to take it out on them because it wasn’t their fault either,” she said. “They kind of kept their space. They were smart.”
Her teammates were right there with her the entire time. Jessica and Angela Petree and Layne Koechner would ride to the hospital with her and kept her connected to school and to the team.
“You could see how good the girls were to each other,” Culpepper said. “How close they were, helping each other out, having each other to talk to, having me and my assistant coach to talk to, and just using each other as a support system.”
Though Caroline was benefiting from that built-in support system, she was also a part of it. Teammates looked to her for strength, came to her to talk about what was happening or just to cry with her.
“It made me feel better,” she said. “I wasn’t by myself. They were my support but I was also their support. They knew I could handle it. I’d done it and I was going to get through it.”
As helpful as basketball proved to be for Caroline, there was a brief moment when she considered taking some time away from it.
“The week after it happened I didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to go play volleyball. I didn’t want to play basketball. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to stay there. Whenever I went to school, my constant thought was to get back to the hospital. Whenever practice came, I didn’t have that thought in my head, I was active. Once I started, I never wanted to quit, I wanted to keep going. It helped a lot.”
After a couple of weeks in the hospital, Chad was gone. He died Nov. 13, two weeks to the day after being injured in the district playoff game and just days after his 17th birthday.
When the girls basketball team took the court for its first game a couple of weeks later in the Tipton Tournament, they sported black wristbands with #18 stitched on, the idea of Angela and Jessica Petree. That tribute to Chad was on the wrists of every Cardinals player for every game this season.
“We went and bought them before we went to the hospital one night,” Caroline said. “We had Jessica’s aunt put the number on them.”
Tipton opened its season by winning their tournament, a pair of close games over Chamois and New Bloomfield before beating Bunceton 56-42 in the final.
Caroline said that was the last time this season she felt completely healthy.
“I was so worn down,” she said. “My antibodies and everything were completely shot. They told me it would take up to a year to get that back. It took three or four months and being gone a lot, traveling. It all hit me at one time so it was hard to get over and I could never fully recover without a new wave of it hitting me.”
Culpepper said he saw his starting point guard begin to turn a corner in early February. That came right before the Kaysinger Conference Tournament, a tournament Tipton won when Caroline hit a driving layup with 3.8 seconds left in the championship game to clinch a 40-38 win over Windsor.
For the season, she averaged 12 points, three steals and three assists per game as the Cardinals followed the conference tournament championship with a share of the regular season conference title.
“It was a team effort for me to have that season,” Caroline said. “It wasn’t just me. Jessica (Petree) had amazing rebounds, (Paige) Baker had amazing rebounds. Ashton (Pace) had lots of points.”
Caroline especially credits Angela Petree with an assist.
“At times I would get so drained I wouldn’t want to play and she would remind me to keep playing,” Caroline said.
After a season with extreme lows and a pair of championships, Caroline still wears a black wristband with #18 on it every day.
“It’s a little bit of strength,” she said. “It’s like a smile to me.”