Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Determination, Leadership by Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin Drive Aggie WBB 69–59 Victory over LSU

Every single practice, every single game of the 2017–2018 season so far, two players have stood head and shoulders above the others in terms of leadership and preparedness for the Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team: Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin. Last night’s competition with LSU showed just how vital these players are to the Aggies' winning (16-5, 5-2 SEC) record.

The primary reason that Howard and Lumpkin were named Co-players of the game had little to do with the great numbers they put up. Yes, Anriel was high scorer with 21 points and 14 rebounds. And yes, Jasmine had 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists (which is almost a triple double!), but it’s not about those numbers that these two leaders kept the game alive until their teammates could get reset and play ball.

Rather, it was the indefatigable spirit of Anriel Howard, taking care of business, sticking to the plan, not letting humiliating play by teammates who were being outplayed by LSU get her down. That was one of the X-factors. The other was that Jasmine has always been the quiet strength who does things on defense that most people miss. Head Coach Gary Blair has said as much before in weekly radio shows at Rudy’s BBQ on Monday nights, but come next Monday night, he’ll be able to say, “I’ve been telling you all along about Jasmine Lumpkin.” Those fortunate enough to be part of the final attendance of 3506 saw how true it was last night.

It’s not basketball statistics, it’s basketball IQ that has those two key players where they are supposed to be. They’re determined, unflappable, and most of all—generous team players. It’s a win for all the team when they show up to practice and play on the court. It’s their professional office workplace and their attitude shows it.

It’s not taking away a single thing from any other player on the team going out and giving her best and still failing. It’s that Marine on the bottom of the pyramid who gives you a leg up to get over the fence, a back to put your foot on and sturdy foundation on which to carry you until you get your game back.

LSU’s game plan began by assigning two smaller LSU players to stick to Khaalia Hillsman like epoxy, and they did their jobs. Hillsman did a good job of shaking them when she could, but for the most part, LSU had double-teamed her. How this manifested itself was that the plan to get Hillsman the ball was basically taken away.

That left four other players who were responsible for getting the points on the board. But, in the first half, it was a tad shy of Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus, as the chase to catch up to the turnover balls as LSU ran away down the court with so many balls made you think you were watching all the clowns getting out of the clown car and trip over each other running around the car.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, LSU had two key players who my seatmate called “Jump Shot Girls,” as they didn’t seem to miss. Raigyn Louis and Ayana Mitchell were those jump shot girls, and Mitchell was a leader in rebounding as well. The duo also named 3 steals apiece. The only thing that the Aggie women did consistently through the game was to take away LSU’s chance at the three, leaving them wanting, making only 2-17 attempts. The Aggies, though, didn’t fare much better, posting 1 for 8 stats. Clearly the Tigers took away the Aggie three, that which the Aggies didn’t take away on their own.

Chloe Jackson for the Tigers dealt 38 minutes of pure frustration to the Aggies as she got one of the team’s 2 threes, along with 14 points, an assist and a steal. Turnovers were the biggest dish of the night, with 12 by the Tigers and 14 by the Aggies. Thing is, it seemed like most of the Aggie turnovers happened in the first period of the game, and we were bound on a course to disaster, yet Howard and Lumpkin were determined not to let that happen.

The SEC provides some of the toughest competition and grittiest play, or at least those of us in the SEC fanbase seem to believe that as fact. Prior to the game, LSU came in tied with A&M at 4-2 in SEC play.

But, lately, it seems to be a rerun of “The Chennedy Carter Show,” where Carter would forgo a lot of passing and just try to carry the team on her back to the “W.” It was disconcerting to see the young freshman wearing her emotions outwardly, sitting slumped on the bench at times, towel over her head (until she later put it around her shouders), or appearing collapsed with disinterest against the scoring bench when waiting to get back in the game after a rest.

Yes, she’d battled flu-like symptoms to play and was still in there trying to make things happen, which she definitely did in the second half. Carter was great on free throws, as was Hillsman, and their combined 12 free throws were a reason the Ags won by 10 last night. Coach Bob Starkey noted that Carter did some great things in the second half for sure. She's definitely a major national talent in the making, but she's a maverick who can learn from the upperclassmen. She will, to be sure.

Hillsman, on the other hand, was a leader by example last night, and was ready to spring back into action, having played 38 minutes, again, with two Tigers seemingly always by her elbows. She had one technical foul, but oh well. You try playing four quarters with two Tigers on your six and not express a tad of frustration.

Kudos to redshirt junior, Caylinne Martin, whose two minutes showed a lot of promise and great attitude coming off the bench, very refreshing to see. Undoubtedly, Carter’s spirit and will to win are great attributes. The rest will work itself out in time, and that’s a coach’s thing, not a fan’s thing to bother with. What fans can do is to see the value in the unsung heroes and sing about them a bit more, so to speak.

And fans can also get up from their home TV sets and get over to Reed Arena if they are in town, because the difference a crowd makes, to each of these young women, is the true X-factor of how these players feel they contribute to Texas A&M Athletics. No athletes work harder than the Aggie women’s basketball team.

Ticket prices are very affordable; last night was $1 hot dog night. In addition to Coach Blair’s basketball skills, he’s also found a way to get someone to listen, and now water is now only $2/bottle. This makes the difference between bringing a family of four to a game, or not. Free parking for women’s games (but not for men’s games) is also another visible pro in the list of reasons to attend. And then there’s Anriel Howard, always a reason to attend in person.

Last night, everywhere you looked, Anriel was getting the rebounds that others might have retrieved, if only they had Anriel’s relentless ability to focus on her objective. Every ball is important, every play matters, and she can reset after an unfair call without it showing on her face.

Similarly, Jasmine Lumpkin on defense is so fun to watch; she was right in the face of every LSU offensive player, the omnipresent immovable force that was going to make your day perfectly unpleasant if you thought you were going to score. Lumpkin is where she’s supposed to be, guarding, and you don’t always see that if you’re focused on offense all the time. Lulu McKinney is always a dynamic addition to the game, even if her minutes aren’t always long. Her leadership skills contribute where you can’t see them on the court, and they’re important.

Per a recent press release from David Waxman, Asst. Athletics SID, McKinney was just named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s 16th annual “So You Want to Be a Coach” program, who will travel to Columbus, Ohio, for a three-day workshop, a very prestigious choice. Selection is based on academics, contributions to women’s basketball on and off the court, resume and written recommendation from their head coach.

Now, for Danni Williams. This young lady has major talent, and no matter what she’s personally able to bring to the game each night, she is 100% team-oriented. As a senior, she’s a leader, and she’s susceptible to being double-teamed as well, as opponents do their best to keep her from her signature three-point shots. Her short shooting last night and one key three-pointer totaled 9 points, but her attitude was far beyond the value of her numbers. Whenever her teammates were shooting second free throws, she worked her way to the basket to be in position for an offensive rebound and she did come up with four defensive rebounds.

Before the season ends, Williams’ consistency will stabilize, once the voices of so many well-meaning people, offering their opinions on how she can regain consistency subsides. Williams does not have a superstar ego, and she has a fierce work ethic and more leadership by example. First in, last out of the gym for practice.

Kayla Wells, a freshman with great promise as a key, calm shooter, played 3 minutes and got 3 key points for the team, and thanks to these two players, there’s 1000W of can-do spirit she brings to the game.

Now, that’s a bunch of numbers tossed about and yes, the Aggies won by 69–59 but it was neither easy nor pretty. At times it was ugly and to a person, three of the Aggie coaches were the most animated, vocal, and well, coaching from the sidelines loud and clear last night. The first period was the Titanic, the second period was a Carnival Cruise (with intermittent power outages), the third period was a Disney Big Red Boat ride of adventure, and the fourth period was a Princess Cruise, with slightly smoother sailing. Overall, the passengers were a tad seasick but happy to reach the dock again.

No one had seen Coach Bob Starkey jump up and down from his chair to the sidelines faster than he did last night. It was, after all, LSU, and he knew exactly what he’d drawn up and exactly what the team wasn’t doing. He “communicated” it with gusto but when the team finally did get it together, it worked smoothly.

Kelly Bond-White was next on the up and down mode; like Starkey she tried to remain calm, but again, when you know the answer and they’re not following what you told them to do, you are going to become very visible on the sidelines. She was. A lot. One can only imagine halftime speeches, but they were reportedly brief and to the point. And effective. That’s a part of the experience 99% of fans don’t get to see unless they are present for the game. TV doesn't focus that much on the sidelines. Blair has his “tells” about how the game is going; there’s trouble if the suit coat comes off before the end of the first quarter.

Generally, but not always, if the coat is placed over a chair, he’s in biz-mode. If he throws it to Mike “Radar” Ricke, he’s perturbed but determined. If he slings or throws it to his right, not caring if it reaches Radar or not, there’s going to be trouble in River City. It wasn’t a few plays before his displeasure with his team’s play revealed itself. But they won and that’s what Hall of Fame Coaches do—they communicate. And they get results.

What was wonderful to see during this game was the presence of many former student athletes who could not attend the formal alumni reunion two weekends ago because they were playing internationally. That’s another thing that Coach Blair excels in, making sure his players leave with an Aggie degree for the future, and he stays in their lives beyond the degree, recommending them for international teams. He’s one who can speak personally to what each would bring to a team, and coaches listen to him.

(Photo credit: TCV Media).

The Jumbotron found Courtney Walker in the stands and on the visitor’s sidelines courtside were Courtney Williams, Achiri Ade, and Danielle Gant, all watching the game together, undoubtedly remembering some of the halftime locker room speeches they’d heard in their years here. They’re all playing overseas right now, and that means good income for them, and they deserve it, without question.

Building champions is far from a smooth, elegant process. It takes four coaches working all the time and the operations team behind them to “make the starmaker machinery behind a popular…” team (with apologies to Joni Mitchell) of winners. Today, the coaches are all on the road, recruiting, and then they get two days off before the Aggies get back to preparing for road contests vs. Vanderbilt (Jan. 28) and Tennessee again (Feb. 1), where we get to hear “Rocky Top” far more times than many can bear, but both games are on SEC-TV so tune in.

And, on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 3 pm, when the Aggies are home to play Auburn, they deserve our attendance. Start your Super Bowl party at Reed Arena, because frankly, this team deserves full Aggie support. Last night if you weren't there, you missed the most adorable children from Rock Prairie Elementary School sing the National Anthem, and the fantastic group of dance students, from cherub to young teens, from local MCM Dance Studio giving their all in robust performances that were treasured by all. This year's team is one to watch, count on that.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Turning on the Lights in Memory of Gene McDaniel Woodell—A Good Man from Grapeland

Friday night I drove to Callaway-Jones Funeral Center to pay respects to a gentleman whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing since 1993, Gene Woodell. It was going to be hard to say goodbye, even if Gene lived 91 wonderful years, because he was so timeless to all who knew him. The welcome smiles of my work colleagues who opened the door for me, Jon Shirley and Morgan Shirley, made my visit comfortable immediately.

As I signed the guest book, Marissa Crouch and Ricky Alderete greeted me as all around me I saw a beautiful display of photographs, awards, certificates, and more. I already knew Gene was legendary in his career—and yet, seeing all the framed accolades reinforced my awareness of what I already knew. We’d lost a legend, on so many levels.

My eyes immediately located a framed photo of Dixie and Gene, from their 50th Wedding Anniversary party at First United Methodist Church, and all of us there (virtually the entire church membership, plus neighbors and friends who’d filed through en masse that day) had signed the now framed matte board surrounding their wedding photo. At the end of his life, Gene and Dixie had marked 63 years of marriage, and all who knew the couple smiled in awe of the joy they showed whenever they were together.

Greeting Gene’s widow, Dixie, and his sons, Gene Martin and John, I knew to expect their strength, but as the beautiful video that Gene Martin had created was showing, it was truly a lifetime of love that was Gene’s greatest legacy to all of us. Even though the light of their lives had been extinguished on January 11th, the Woodells were such gracious hosts to all of Bryan-College Station who came through to share a hug, a tear, and so many memories.

I am continually humbled, when I see the “greatest generation” show up en masse, no matter what kind of impediments might try to dissuade them from paying respects. To be sure, in attendance were several Millenials, including Clayton Cates who came in, who’d known “Mr. Woodell” as the senior usher at First United Methodist Church, the man whose heart was filled with the incandescent countenance of grace and peace. John Woodell had asked Clayton to be an usher for the next day’s service, as Clayton was one whom Mr. Woodell had known from birth.

Trying to count the number of ushers who were asked by Mr. Woodell to work with him on Sunday mornings, I gave up—too many to count. He was truly a pillar of the church. In the past year alone, First Methodist has lost many pillars but Gene Woodell was one pillar for which it was almost too hard for me to say goodbye to, and I’m well practiced in saying goodbye bravely. After I’d paid my respects, I saw more of the photographs of the Woodells’ lifetime of love. They brought me to near-tears.

Fortunately, Rose Cates spotted me and we visited and reminisced about what Gene meant to our church, and as others came in, we knew they were from other parts of the Woodell’s lives. Whether it’s visitation or a funeral, we all need closure, we need people to be there with us and for us, which is the most important reason for a visitation, as you are not alone in your grief. Others miss whom you miss. Others remember what you remember, and together there is comfort.

Taking time to see all the names in the visitor registry, I smiled, because the lives that Gene touched in his lifetime were those from Grapeland, Texas, from his career position with Merck, Sharp, and Dohme (now Merck & Co.), within his church, and in an established Bryan neighborhood of longstanding. Everyone smiled as they shared their memories of Gene with his family.

The visitation was just the beginning of the energy and warmth that would surround the celebration of his life. I’d not known before that Gene was a Mason, or a member of the Circle Squares Square Dance Club, and the Knife and Fork Club. We must always remember that as well as we think we know others, we can always learn something new about an old friend, if we take the time to talk and ask questions.

The lights came on early Saturday morning in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Bryan, at 28th and Houston, as a special event was to take place, with the public arriving for a 11 am funeral to pay final respects to one of the true “pillars of the church.”

It would be the first special occasion in the past 67 years in the life of the church where Gene himself was not present to open the doors. Instead, we the massive group of friends, family, fellow church members, neighbors and Bryan-College Station residents filed in to fill the pews for Gene’s Life Tribute service.

My door was opened by a professional teen usher whom Gene inspired and trained, Clayton Cates. That door was originally Gene’s to open, as he did virtually every Sunday of his 67 years as a member of the church now in its 150th year. Imagine…a man who has been part of a church for almost half of its existence. Truly, this is an awesome achievement. I was one of hundreds who processed through those portals over various years. He took the time to greet everyone by name…he brought a great “Welcome to your church” to visitors and guests alike.

For the funeral, pews held so many of the subsets of the church membership, one pew holding the surviving spouses of former FUMC ministers and their friends, another pew holding members of the 2x2 Sunday School class, of which Dixie and Gene were members, yet another pew with many of the Wesley Sunday School Class, another pew with a beloved former senior pastor and his entire family, on and on, as you then saw pews of others you didn’t know, but you’d come to know as the service proceeded with James Polasek on the organ with the prelude.

After Ricky Alderete led the family in to their reserved pews, Pastor Rick Sitton welcomed everyone and the music began. Young Michael Bettati perfomed a sterling violin solo as the opening then Rev. David Henry led the Sanctuary Choir in “On Eagle’s Wings” and all was right with the world. The FUMC Sanctuary Choir is one of the reasons many people return each week, to hear whatever they’ve worked up next as their gift to the congregation. Gene Woodell was another reason people returned each week.

Jeff Hobbs, Children’s Minister at FUMC, read from the Psalms, and took his rightful place as one who deserved to be part of the final farewell. Gene had watched him become the church leader he is, encouraging him all the way, sometimes good naturedly, but always with a smile. Count on Dr. Tim Scott to share from the lectern and keep everyone’s attention in a positive way. First, Tim read John’s tribute eulogy to their dad, and then it was time for the congregation to sing “Blessed Assurance,” always a favorite. Michael Bettati performed a powerful version of “Long Time Traveler,” and then it was time for the Eulogy.

Tim invited anyone who wished to come forward to share “I am thankful for Gene Woodell because…” and as people filed up there, including Texas State Rep. John Raney (who came down from the choir loft to do so), and wife Elizabeth, to Gene’s neighbors, friends from Grapeland, and other church members, the accolades flowed beautifully and smoothly.

Tim then continued by sharing the contents of a beautiful anonymous note that the Woodells had found in their mailbox one day. For four years a student had ridden his bike down their block, en route to classes at Texas A&M, and every day when Gene was outside, he would wave and smile at the student, neither party knowing the other’s names.

The student was just about to graduate and decided on that occasion that he wanted to thank the “resident” there for his daily encouragement that was, some days, what kept him going in his journey and through his education challenges. Imagine the power of a single wave and smile. That was Woodell Wattage light that flowed through him wherever he was.

Tim reminded so many of us of the truly sainted man who’d grown up in Grapeland, after having lost his dad very early in his life, one reason Tim projected that he’d been such a loving and caring father to their sons. Gene had co-founded “The Better Men of Grapeland” as a young man, vowing not to drink or smoke or swear, or go with girls who did. That’s an achievement to admire…without a father figure in his life, Gene and his friends decided early what kind of men they would be. Who does that anymore? Only special people with special gifts.

He shared how Gene wanted so much to join the Boy Scouts, even at age 13, but he’d learned the age of entry was 14, and the Scoutmaster wouldn’t make an exception. So, he went to the library and read up on the rules, and learned that you could join at 13 years old if there was a board member to sponsor you. One day the scoutmaster was out of town, so Gene sought out a Boy Scout board member to sponsor him. The man was so impressed, he agreed to sponsor him, and he hired him to work in his business. The man was Otto Walling, whose family had been in Grapeland, forever it seemed.

Otto hired Gene and that was the beginning of his interest in drug stores and in pharmaceuticals.

Gene was definitely a people person, so he combined his people skills in a business that made people feel better, a representative of a major pharmaceutical company, one that he devoted 37 years of his work life to serving, Merck & Co. Seeing some of his award plaques at visitation was so as you’d expect…for all the years I knew him, he never once mentioned an award. You just “knew it,” but doctors in town and their office teams always respected him. Gene was like no other in what he did and how he did it. Hard to quantify in words.

The sermon delivered by Pastor Sitton was as you’d expect, hard for him to deliver, as clearly he respected Gene so much, but he made it meaningful to all who heard him. What do you say when a visible pillar of your congregation is no longer there to welcome you each week? Many pastors and their spouses were in attendance on Saturday—they know exactly how Pastor Sitton felt. As Pastor Sitton said in closing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Amen and amen.

The concluding hymn was “Because He Lives,” and it was almost as though someone was picking favorites out of the old Cokesbury Hymnal, and nothing would have made Gene happier. Well done, Rev. David Henry.

In any church, in any career, and in any community, you come across people who improve your life, and those of all around you, simply by their indefatigable smiles, their optimistic outlook on life, and their ability to be calm in any crisis. It reminds me of what Fred Rogers used to say to young children who were being taught what to do when there’s trouble around them. “Look for the helpers,” he’d say. For most all of his 91 years, in life you could say, “Look for Gene Woodell, he will help you.”

Dr. Fran Kimbrough is responsible for the takeaway remark of the individual eulogies…paraphrasing as closely as I can, she said, “For mumble-something years, I’ve known the entire Woodell family, as a lifetime member of this church, and my two favorite ushers of all time are my uncle, Jim James, and Mr. Woodell. And I know for a fact that one day when I get to Heaven, there will be two ushers standing at the door up there as they always did down here, and that will be my uncle, Jim James and Mr. Woodell.”

And that, of everything I heard and appreciated yesterday, made me smile the most.

The lights of the sanctuary in First United Methodist Church glowed brightly again this morning, and will every day hereafter in which any worship service occurs in the now 150th year of that church.

But the lights in the night skies, when they can be seen, will undoubtedly be stronger and brighter, and light-years away someone has already said, “Hey look, Woodell has arrived!”

Following the benediction, the family paid final respects in passing the casket for the last time en route to the reception in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Larry Whitlock and Zach Johnson had joined Ricky Alderete in folding the U.S. Flag draping Gene's casket, a reminder of his service to country in the U.S. Army. The rest of the congregation followed behind them.

In the Fellowship Hall, at every table you’d find people gathered together in rapt conversation, talking about how they first came to First Church, how Gene had welcomed them, and invariably the statement, “This church will not be the same without him.” A beautiful collective of church women acted as hosts for the reception, providing recognition and regard for all who attended, ambassadors of FUMC as Gene would so have loved.

However, rather than drop into deep depression, you could be uplifted as you’d see only the countenance of calm on Dixie’s face, the active and appreciative way in which both Gene Martin and John engaged in conversation with all who came to speak special words. It would be a long day for their family as the interment would take place at Bethel Cemetery on Hardy Weedon Road, and final goodbyes would be said.

When you think of Gene Woodell in the daytime, just look for the brightest light in the sky around you, and he’ll be there.

To read the full, beautiful life tribute that John Woodell wrote, and to watch the exquisite video of Gene's life that Gene Martin created, visit Gene's tribute page on the Callaway-Jones web site at http://www.callawayjones.com/gene-mcdaniel-woodell/