OAKWOOD – At the start of every game for the Oakwood Panthers, basketball stands are filled with eager parents and students.
Many to see if this year's team will improve from their semifinals appearance last season. Others to watch Oakwood's lone female hooper, Avery Hardin, compete on the varsity stage.
“She's one of the 10 best players at Oakwood,” head coach Michael Ostlund emphasized. “Avery is not a girl playing on the boys' basketball team. She is playing on the Oakwood basketball team.”
A shortage of interested players left Oakwood unable to fill their girls' basketball team this season.
A disappointing reality for Hardin, who started on the Lady Panthers varsity squad last year as a freshman. Nonetheless, she did not let that deter her from playing basketball this season.
“There was a lot of hesitation,” Hardin said. “Do I want to get bodied by a boy? Still, it was very simple. Do I want to play basketball or sit at home?”
In section 360 of the UIL's Non-Discrimination Policy, “a female student may try out for and, if selected, participate on the corresponding boys’ team: (1) the school district does not have the corresponding UIL Girls’ Basketball Plan to the UIL Boys’ Basketball Plan-it offers.
Thus, the process began.
Hardin's initial plan was to play with the junior varsity squad. However, coach Ostlund presented her a chance to showcase her skills on varsity at their first tournament.
She not only impressed her teammates, but she earned All-Tournament honors as a sign of respect from opposing coaches.
“She's what we need,” senior guard Jerimiah Sargent said. “She hoops. She's a strong female. It takes a lot of guts from her to play with us. She's amazing.”
Hardin was immediately ingratiated into the locker room upon her arrival. However, through 10 games, she still feels the stares from opposing teams during warm-ups.
“They see me as a weakness,” Hardin said. “I see their faces when we're warming up. I don't see weakness in myself. I'm not frightened by the way they look at me.”
Standing at 5'7 with a slightly built frame, opponents often chuckle at the thought of her defending them. Her response? A simple laugh back.
“She will lock you up,” Sargent said with a grin. “She has the mindset to play basketball. We have confidence in her when her number is called.”
Hardin has grown used to doubters. At the beginning of the season, a few of her friends and students believed at best she would be a benchwarmer on the varsity team.
Conversely, her parents pushed her to use this opportunity as a unique athletic experience.
Now at the start of district, Hardin has become a staple for Oakwood as a defensive presence on the court.
“She's earned this,” Ostlund said. “She's not a token. Her work ethic and dedication to being an athlete have earned her a spot. Every game we've played I get a little more comfortable with her.”
Hardin's reliability, consistency and ability to play within a role has become a “valuable commodity” for coach Ostlund to have.
For Oakwood, she has become the poster child for eliminating the phrase “she does it well for a girl.”
At Trinidad, every good play from her was followed by a rallying cheer from other girls' basketball teams.
Every game since has been filled with fans screaming out support for number 33. And at the end of each game, admirers flood the court to congratulate her on her performance.
Though Avery doesn't know if this will be her only year on the boys' teams, she hopes she has encouraged other lady hoopers to try it out if the opportunity presents itself.
“I did this to get better,” Hardin said. “Don't hesitate. I thought I was going to get bullied for it. Yes, I have haters, but who doesn't? Don't lower your standards. Just go for it.”
To outsiders, Hardin is a girl making her way on the boys' team. To her, she's a basketball player getting the opportunity to play her favorite sport in the world.