Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON C.H. — All season long, Miami Trace senior Gracee Stewart has feasted on opposing defenses.
Stewart, a forward, has helped the Panthers bring home an Frontier Athletic Conference title this season while growing as a scorer, as a player and as a leader.
But, after a season-ending injury last winter, she’s just happy to be on the court in the first place.
We sat down with Stewart to discuss her comeback season, how she’s embraced a scoring role, playing for coach Ben Ackley, and much more.
Question: First things first. You girls have been on a roll here lately. What’s been the key to that momentum?
Stewart: The biggest key to this momentum has been playing more as a team and learning to trust one another as the season continues. With not being able to play much together in the offseason, we’ve had to figure out one another and our teammates’ abilities throughout the season. As a team, we are finally starting to reach our peak moment, which couldn’t be at a better time, going into tournaments. This team is finally proving to everyone what we’re capable of now. We just have to excel at it.
Q: Let’s go back to that win over McClain. Can you take me through what it’s like to win a game with conference title implications like that one?
GS: First, wow, what an amazing feeling to not only come out with that big win but it was even more special with it being on our home court. Being an athlete, those big games, special moments, and huge wins are what we work for. The countless hours of practice, watching film, and preparing for these games makes that feeling more meaningful than anything, especially with my teammates. The matchup between us and McClain is the biggest matchup of the season, so pulling out that one not only gave us the chance to win the league outright, but proved this is the team we have always been capable of being.
Q: You’ve fully recovered from what could’ve been a devastating injury. What’s that process been like for you and how happy are you to be back on the court again?
GS: Experiencing an ACL injury is something I never want to see other athletes go through in their career. It was an eye-opening experience for me and the process has been quite a bumpy ride. But looking back on it this season, without going through that so-called tragedy, I turned it into a learning experience. I wouldn’t be the person, teammate, and player I am today without it. With the injury putting me on the sidelines my junior season, I was able to get a whole different perspective on the game I love. I grew as a leader off the court. At times I caught asking myself “Why me?” or “Why now?” and that was okay, but I had to tell myself what’s done is done and all I can do now is make the most of it and just come back better than before. Being happy to be back on the court is an understatement. It feels amazing to be back with my team and doing what I love. The process was not easy and not the most ideal. But I’m thankful for the lessons I was taught throughout it and I wouldn’t have been able to do it with the endless amount of support and encouragement from my coaches, family, and friends.
Q: Ben Ackley is one fiery dude. What’s it like to play for him and how does he make you better each day?
GS: Playing for coach Ackley over the past four years has been an amazing experience and I’m truly blessed to call him my coach. Throughout these four years, there have been many ups and downs, times we’ve butted heads, times where we laughed about something, had serious talks before the game … I wouldn’t want to have it any other way with any other coach. I love playing for coach Ackley and how involved he is with this team. Everyday he not only pushes me to the best of my ability, but the team to the best of its ability as well. He’s constantly challenging me to be a better player as well as a teammate. He coaches with fire and that’s one thing I love most about him. It just shows how much his players mean to him.
Q: Every game is one closer to your last now. Has being a senior hit you just yet?
GS: Being a senior has hit me hard a few times during the season, especially knowing it’s your last. I learned to never take anything for granted and play like it could be your last because these are moments and memories you later look back on. Right now, you get to choose how you remember it. Knowing that my last season of high school basketball is coming to an end, I have to soak it all up and enjoy what I have left with my team.
Q: You’ve taken on a scoring role this season. What have you worked on improving the most in that area of the game?
GS: This year, I focused on letting the game come to me rather than just focusing on scoring. I’ve tried to focus on other ways to help the team, ways I can contribute to a win and let the scoring part come natural to me. Being able to shoot the ball well has always been one of my biggest strengths. Teams weren’t just going to let me catch and shoot the ball so I had to excel in other things like attacking the rim or shooting pull-up jumpers, or even trying to create easy shots for my teammates. The more games I’ve played this year, the more confidence I’ve gained and found different ways to score.
Q: How far can this team go in a tournament sense?
GS: I personally think this team could do big things and come out with big wins throughout tournament play if we continue to play as a team and get better each practice. We’ve shown the type of team we can be. Now, it’s just time to embrace it. Anyone is beatable on any given night.