By Ron Holt
Gentry Baldwin, Bixby’s talented 5-7 senior point guard, learned early in her basketball career the importance of being mentally tough.
For a point guard, being able to control one’s emotions while also displaying relentless, controlled body language is pivotal. It was a process.
“When I was little, I was mentally weak. If you said one thing to me, like constructive criticism, I would shut down. I used to cry on the court,” Baldwin, a four-year starter for the Lady Spartans, said recently.
“My dad told me when I was younger that he doesn’t want to look at my face on the court and tell if we are up 40 points or down 40. We had a lot of talks about that. I had to work to make sure the emotion on my face was the same.
“In the seventh and eighth grade, my body language was still pretty bad if I was getting harped on or if I wasn’t playing better,” added Baldwin. “Having Kara Wernli as our coach (AAU) helped me a lot. She coached us so hard, wanting us to be as good as we can be.
“Knowing that someone that level of a player like she was believed in me and put the time in me helped … Kara helped with tough love. When I got into high school, we talked about keeping my composure because as a point guard that’s where the team looks if things are going good or bad. It was a big process.
“Being a point guard there is a little more responsibility. I learned a lot playing with Kate Bradley during my freshman year because I got to watch her do it. Kate was a role model.”
Baldwin’s composure was put to the test last year when the Lady Spartans were involved in another tense, hard-fought battle with conference rival Union. This battle was in the semifinals of the Class 6A State Tournament at Oklahoma University’s Lloyd Noble Center in Norman.
Union scored with six seconds left to lead 34-32. Bixby hurried the ball up the court when Baldwin was fouled while launching a shot. The officials called a foul, giving Baldwin three free throws with 1.6 seconds left. Her teammates – Gracy Wernli, Meredith Mayes, Alyssa Nielsen and Brynn Daniel – hugged her and spoke reassuring words.
“In all honesty, my mind was completely blank … I had nothing going on up there,” Baldwin, the daughter of Shannon and Jeff Baldwin, said. “I couldn’t hear anything. I was more nervous because I knew how hard our whole team worked and my thoughts were ‘are you going to step up for your team.’
“The first shot was definitely the hardest … it was probably the most nerve-wracking free throw I’ve ever taken in my life. My hands were shaking as were my legs. When I released it, I thought I missed it but it hit every part of the rim and went in so I could finally breathe.
“In my mind I thought just make one of two to advance the game. I made the second one and it felt great. Then he (Union coach Joe Redmond) called a timeout. If he had called a time out after the first one, I probably would have been more nervous. During the timeout, coach Thomas was talking but I had no idea what she was saying, I was looking at her but not processing what she was saying.
“When I walked back out there four of the Union girls were crying which made me think they thought I was going to make the third one. On the last free throw, I felt no pressure at all. I remember hugging all my teammates afterward.”
Baldwin’s mental toughness and composure at crunch time didn’t surprise her head coach. She’s averaging 12.2 points and 5.6 assists per game and a team-leading 41 steals this season for the 13-6 Lady Spartans, coming off a junior year where she averaged 10.2 points and led the team with 118 assists. She’s also a tenacious defender.
“She’s the grittiest, most determined young lady … she’s the rudder and driving force of our team,” Bixby head coach Tina Thomas said of Baldwin. “Everything goes through her. She’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime players you are fortunate enough to get to coach.”
Bixby’s season came to a disappointing end in the championship game against Edmond North last season as a last-second field goal in overtime handed North a 59-57 win.
“I’m still not over it. We worked our butts off all year, won a tough semifinal game to get to play Edmond North in the finals and it didn’t go in our favor,” said Baldwin, who also plays soccer and runs track at BHS. “My sophomore year we were just glad to be in the finals because no one expected us to be there. It was a privilege to be there.
“Knowing it came down to the last second of overtime last year you feel anger and frustration. What could I have done? I think it showed us you have to learn how to finish it. We now have that resolve that you have to show up and compete every day …that’s been our mindset this season.”
The Lady Spartans began this season with one of its goals being a return appearance in the state championship. Those plans took a hit early in the season when Bixby’s 6-3 senior center Meredith Mayes suffered a season-ending knee injury during a Bixby Classic Tournament game against Edmond Memorial.
“The moment when it happened, I was just so concerned for her,” Baldwin said. “It sounds bad, but we had to shut our emotions off at that point because we had to take care of business against one of the best teams in the state. After the game is when the emotions hit.
“We’ve been together my entire life and now that’s the last game I’ll ever play with her … the emotions took over. She played such a big role on our team on and off the court.
“It’s heartbreaking, I can’t talk about it long because I get emotional. It was overwhelming the way she supported us. The way our team has bounced back says a lot about who we are. Everyone has filled their roles,” she added.
Baldwin’s development during her Lady Spartan career attracted interest from college recruiters, including her target school – Oral Roberts University. She realized a dream since she was a freshman when she signed with ORU during the early signing period.
“Multiple things attracted me to ORU. One was the religion part of it, I’m from a very religious family. I knew I wanted to go to a private Christian college if I had the opportunity,” she said. “My sister (Riley) plays soccer there and is a junior. She’ll be a senior when I get there but she’ll take her fifth year, so I’ll get to be with her for two years. And it’s close to home, I can see my mama and my dad more often.
“The last thing was probably their coaching staff. No one was talking to me before the new coaches came in. I didn’t get ORU interest until I went to their camp. I talked to their coaches Anderson (Cophie), Annan (Bill) and coach (Kelsi) Musick and liked being with them all day at the camp. I told my parents if they offer that’s where I want to go … it was an offer I couldn’t pass up. It’s nice to see all your hard work pay off,” she noted.
When Bixby hosts conference rival Owasso Friday (Feb. 10), senior girls’ and boys’ basketball players will be honored along with their parents. It will be emotional since Baldwin and other seniors have played together since elementary school.
“It’s an emotional night but a good emotion,” Baldwin said. “It’ll be sad a little but the fact we get to do it together is awesome. We have a night honoring us for working hard in the program since we were freshmen … it’s kind of a cool moment.
“I’ve spent more time with these girls than I have by myself. It’s going to be a learning curve not having them around next year. Knowing that we’re going our own ways it’ll be cool to see what we can do. It’s really a cool process for all of us.”