August 3, 2013 11:36:12 PM
Shelby Stratton couldn't help be confident.
After all, she had made six trips to the National Senior Olympics with teams of different skill levels. For her seventh trip, Stratton felt the Mississippi Magnolias 65-and-over women's basketball team could do some damage. It's not because she thought she or any of her teammates could light up a scoreboard. Instead, Stratton believed the Mississippi Magnolias could bring home some hardware if they only played their game.
Losses in the team's first three games didn't shake Stratton's confidence.
Once the Mississippi Magnolias got rolling, no one could stop them. The Mississippi team won its final five games to capture the gold medal at the biennial games in Cleveland, Ohio.
"To win the gold was just wonderful," Stratton said. "I knew we had a good team when we left Columbus and that we were going for the gold, but I was just being a little optimistic."
The Mississippi Magnolia came out of a tough bracket that included teams that went on to win the silver and bronze medals. The other team in its bracket finished first in pool play. Despite the slow start, Stratton said a woman from a team from Colorado assured her the Magnolias would be fine. Stratton wasn't sure if she believed her. In fact, she admitted she had lost her optimism, as had Shirley Butler, of Columbus. But something clicked for the Magnolias, who used their depth and chemistry to go on a winning streak that won them the gold. The Mississippi Magnolias defeated a team from Texas to take first. The Texas team beat the Magnolias by one point in the first meeting before the Mississippi Magnolias rallied to win the rematch by 14 points.
"It was a dream," said Butler, who was making her first appearance at the National Senior Olympics. "We had eight players there who were all very good. I think we played as a team and didn't just play two or three people like some of the other teams probably had to. We had fresh legs all of the time. I think the fact we had that ability helped us tremendously."
Stratton said she and her teammates believed they could regroup because they knew they weren't playing their game. It sounds simple, but Butler, Stratton, and Sherryl Dickerson, who also is from Columbus, said they didn't need to have a team meeting to get back on track.
The women acknowledged that the setting and the anxiety of competing for a national title may have contributed to their slow start. By the time they settled down and regained their mental focus, everything fell into place.
"When I was standing on the podium (to receive the gold medals) I didn't want to cry, but I couldn't help it because I was so emotional," Dickerson said. "When I got down (from the podium), there was a lady (from another team) who said, 'You made me cry. I could see your tears.' I was excited. It was such an emotional thing listening to the (theme music). I made you feel like, 'Woo-Hoo.' "
Dickerson said the first victory coming out of pool play reinforced their confidence and allowed them to relax. They thanked everyone in the city of Cleveland and all of the people in Columbus and the state of Mississippi who supported them and made them feel special. In fact, Butler said winning a gold medal with the Mississippi Magnolias was even more special than when she won a gold medal in track and field at New Hope High School.
"I think you just try so much harder when you get older," Butler said. "I think it was just overwhelming that everybody had the same mental attitude about it."
In addition to Butler, Dickerson, and Stratton, Barbara Ibarra, of New Hope, Sue Berry, of Jackson, Judy Hasty, of Collierville, Tenn., Gail Veazey, of Senatobia, and Jeanette Bryant also were members of the team.
The Mississippi Magnolia welcome any women age 50 and over who would like to join them for practice at 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the East Columbus gym. Butler, Dickerson, and Stratton will continue to play for as long as they can because -- true to a saying on a T-shirt team members wear -- playing basketball keeps them young.
"You don't get old because you play. You get old because you stop playing," Stratton said.
Sounds like a good motto for all of us to have. The Magnolias will continue to play every week and to compete in tournaments leading up to the state qualifier in Jackson next year that will help them earn a spot in the 2015 National Senior Olympics in Minneapolis, Minn.
"I think we can't wait to do it again," Dickerson said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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