The game of basketball teaches many lessons, like commitment, teamwork, effort, hard work and more. It also can open the door to creating a friendship that lasts a lifetime.
Two former Lady Knights basketball players got to experience all of that while celebrating a national title.
On Thursday, Jan. 25 during the West Holmes Lady Knights’ game versus Lexington, a pair of all-time greats in the West Holmes Lady Knights’ basketball annals were honored as integral parts of the Ashland Eagles’ 2017 women’s national championship basketball team.
Perhaps just as important as the national title was the fact that Rachelle Morrison and Laina Snyder got to experience the thrill together.
A year ahead of Snyder in school, Morrison, a 2013 graduate of WHHS, ventured to Ashland University to become an Eagle and was instrumental in bringing her good friend to join her. Together, they experienced something few college athletes ever get to celebrate, a national title.
“I went to Ashland because I wanted to find somewhere with the qualities like West Holmes, where they worked hard and they had a winning program,” Morrison said. “I felt very comfortable at Ashland. Having devoted so many years to the West Holmes program, I wanted something with that same sense of community and family, and I got it in Ashland.”
The two were extremely close growing up, and even as Snyder was in the midst of leading the Lady Knights to a state title her senior year in the 2013-14 season, Morrison continued to put a bug in her ear about becoming an Eagle.
“I was begging Laina to come to Ashland,” Morrison said with a laugh. “Seeing her come here meant the world to me.”
Joining a crew of talented players at Ashland, the 2016-17 season began with the team talking about winning a national title. Morrison said it was the first time in her four years that the team actually openly talked about it.
She said it wasn’t until the final seconds ticked off the clock in their title game win that she really realized what they had accomplished.
“We’re just focusing on winning a game, and then the confetti flew and we could really enjoy it,” Morrison said. “We have this special bond with our teammates that makes it so much more enjoyable, but with me and Laina, we’ve had that bond since we were little kids. That made it very special.”
“That last game was really strange,” Snyder said. “Before the game Rachelle and I were stretching, and she said, ‘I want this to be over, and I want to win a national championship, but I don’t want this feeling to ever stop.’ This whole journey that began in third grade was amazing, and I am glad it ended the way it did.”
While at West Holmes, Snyder was the key cog of three straight state tournament appearances for the Lady Knights, the final one of those three culminating in a state championship. Morrison played a large role in the first two of those treks to state.
Snyder currently ranks third on the all-time scoring list at West Holmes while holding the career rebounding record for the Lady Knights. She also earned First Team All-Ohio honors in her junior and senior year and was tabbed as the Div. II Co-Player of the Year in Ohio in the 2013-14 season. She recently set the all-time career rebounding mark for the Eagles and continues inching her way up toward the all-time career scoring mark.
Could she have gone to a larger Div. I school and played? Absolutely, but much like Morrison, Snyder was looking for something more than that.
“They had a winning program, and the focus wasn’t about basketball, but on becoming a better person and growing closer to God,” Snyder said. “That was the full feel of what I was looking at in a school. Plus it was close to home, and I knew I wanted to play where all of the faces that were at West Holmes games and especially my parents could come and watch me play. The West Holmes community was a big part of making me who I am.”
Snyder has never regretted not exploring a larger Div. I school and said she never would have experienced the same level of success, not the thrill of winning a national title, because that honor in Div. I is pretty much reserved for the University of Connecticut, a program that was beyond Snyder.
“Ashland has helped me grow as a person, and I have had a blast playing basketball, so at the end of the day, why would I want to go to an average D-I when I could win a national title at D-II,” Snyder said.
Snyder currently holds the AU rebounding record and ranks third and is climbing in the career scoring ranks, but she said the team winning is what brings the most joy and happiness to her and the rest of the team.
Morrison came to Ashland and made an immediate impact, playing 27 games as a freshman and assuming a key role off the bench while starting four games. She started four more games her sophomore season and continued to be a key piece, but as the Eagles brought in more talent, her minutes dwindled over her junior and senior year. That didn’t stop her from continuing to be a major contributor as a leader and an inspiration, and she also earned multiple spots on the GLIAC Women’s Basketball All-Academic Excellence Team, which featured student-athletes with cumulative grade point averages of 3.50-4.00.
Morrison said her role was to be an inspirational team leader. She was a calming voice. She helped set the tone for intensity and took the role to heart.
Snyder said having a leader like Morrison was key because players would come off the floor down about how they were performing. Head coach Robyn Fralick was busy paying attention to the game, and Morrison always knew exactly what to say. She went on to note that watching Morrison has taught her to think more in terms of leadership and helping others.
“I actually think to myself, ‘What would Rachelle do right now,’” Snyder said. “She has been a role model on and off the court.”
“I learned so much from being in difficult situations,” Morrison said. “I didn’t necessarily get the minutes I had wanted, but it turned out for the absolute best. Coach always asked, ‘Would you rather be a star for a losing team or would you rather be someone who is a role player on a national championship team?’ Every day I would pick to be on that national championship team because that is something I will remember my whole life.”
At WHHS the two star players teamed up with a host of other talented players, like Paiten Strother, Emily Molnar, Brit MacCaulay and Hannah Clark, to name just a few, and helped carve out a sensational run for Lady Knights basketball.
Their former Lady Knights head coach Lisa Ogi realized what a gift it was to be able to coach these two talented individuals. However, she said what made her job so easy wasn’t their ability, but rather the type of people they were both on and off the court.
“Rachelle was probably the most coachable kid I ever coached, and she knows I feel that way about her,” Ogi said of Morrison. “She didn’t think she was a leader when she came here. She said she was socially awkward, but I always kept telling her she had what it takes to be a great leader. We saw that at Ashland. As far as Laina, she was the most gifted kid I ever coached. She and I go way back, and she is a special person. And as far as leadership skills, both of them are superb, and I feel very blessed to be a part of their growing-up process.”
Two friends since third grade, countless hours as gym rats, a boat-load of incredible memories and one grand finale that culminated in a national championship made this journey well worth it for these two close friends.
For Snyder, who is hoping to continue her basketball career after graduation this season, the beat goes on as the Eagles compete for a second straight national title, having racked up an NCAA Div. II record 57 straight victories, a high-water mark for both men and women.
For Morrison, her days of playing competitive hoops is over. Having devoted so much time to the game over the years, she has been surprised that it hasn’t left a gigantic hole in her life. She has found a wonderful job as part of the finance team at the J.M. Smucker Company, and life outside of basketball has been as wonderful as it was while playing.
“You think it’s going to be this life-transforming, life-ending thing because all I have known is basketball,” Morrison said. “I still miss it a lot, but when you get to the next season of life, you learn to move on. Most of all I miss the people and the closeness of our team. That is the one thing I miss the most.”