By Ron Holt
When 5-10 senior guard Gracy Wernli first entered Bixby Lady Spartans’ starting lineup as a freshman basketballer it was obvious early on that she possessed an accurate shooting touch especially from three-point range.
She’s given the Lady Spartans an outside shooting weapon during her BHS tenure while also steadily improving her overall game. She developed the ability to drive to the hoop, a pull up jumper and turned into one of the Lady Spartans’ most reliable defenders. It happened because of her work ethic.
She’s been a leader during her time in the Lady Spartan program, helping lead Bixby to back-to-back Class 6A state runner-up finishes. She led BHS in scoring last season, hitting 61 three-pointers while averaging 13.8 points per game.
This season, she’s averaging 18 points per game for the 15-7 Lady Spartans. She had season-highs of 31 points against Okarche in the Tournament of Champions and 29 points against Frontier Valley Conference rival Union. She’s scored below double figures only three times this season. When she catches fires shooting the ball it changes the game’s direction.
Wernli, the oldest daughter of Mike and Kara Faulk Wernli, spent numerous hours working on her shooting touch – stressing a quick release of the basketball – while being tutored and coached by her mom.
Kara was an all-state basketball player at Sapulpa where she and all-state teammate Mandy Nightingale-Burn led the Lady Chieftains to the 1998 state championship.
She later starred at Oklahoma State, leading the Cowgirls in scoring (12.1 points per game) and rebounding (8.1 rebounds a game) in 2000-2001. Ironically, Kara’s coach at Sapulpa was Bixby’s current girls’ head coach Tina Thomas.
“That’s so crazy how all of this happens. It’s so weird looking back on it with my mom playing for Coach Thomas,” noted the younger Wernli. The experience has been meaningful for coach Thomas. “That’s one of the true joys of the longevity of coaching. It’s been a very special thing to me to coach the second generation.”
Being coached by someone with her mom’s basketball experience was a positive, but Gracy admits at times it was also stressful.
“I worked on my shot since I was little, me and my mom were in the gym a lot,” she said. “A big emphasis was catching and positioning your hands for a quick release. We used to shoot with four seconds left on the gun and now when we are on the gun it’s one second, seeing that progression was kinda cool.
“My mom did get after it hard. When we were alone in the gym working on shooting there were lots of tears. I was a kid and not looking at the big picture I was just thinking mom’s being mean to me. Tough love is the best way to put it.
“But she was looking at the big picture, she just wanted what was best for me … she got me where I’m at today. She knew what was best and how to get me there. I think everything started clicking in the eighth grade … that’s when I finally saw the benefits of all our work,” said Wernli, ‘Having my mom there and knowing I put all the work in over the years gave me confidence.
“I think my main drive when I was little was to try to make mom proud … she’s my mom. It’s still a huge factor but now it’s turned into a love for the game.”
After her freshman year, Wernli focused on overall game improvement. She’s steadily improved each season. “At the end of the season, our coaching staff has exit interviews, noting what I’ve done good and things I need to work on … that’s what I’ve gotten from Coach Thomas.
“After my freshman year I was just catch and shoot, that’s all,” Wernli said. “After my freshman year and into my sophomore year we really emphasized being a three-dimensional player because I wasn’t a threat if you took my shot away.
“My ability to catch and drive to the rack was a huge emphasis. I think my pull up game this year is better. I need to remember to pump fake and take the pull up shot instead of driving in looking for the foul.
“Defense was also a huge thing. In my freshman year I was labeled as a help defender. A lot of times now I guard one of the better girls on the other teams … it helps that my team has confidence in me to guard the other team’s better players.”
Coach Thomas witnessed Wernli’s development during her time in the Lady Spartan program, crediting her success to her dedication and work ethic.
“She’s definitely a scorer but Gracy brings a standard of excellence to the gym in practice every time,” Thomas said. “She expects a ton of herself … she’s pretty relentless on herself. And she expects a lot from her teammates.
“It’s been a joy to coach her because she helps make sure everybody is bringing their best. I call her clutch. She wants to take the clutch shot and her teammates want her to take the clutch shot and she makes the clutch shot a ton of the time.
“I’ve never coached someone who spends as much time in the gym working to perfect her craft than that kid,” she added. “She’s grown on both ends of the court. Whatever you ask of that young lady she grinds until she gets it done.”
Wernli and senior teammates Gentry Baldwin, Alyssa Nielsen and Meredith Mayes have played together since elementary school. They were all committed to making the senior season their best.
The season, however, took a disappointing turn during the Bixby Classic when Mayes, a double-double performer a year ago, suffered a knee injury during a semifinal game with Edmond Memorial. She was lost for the season after undergoing surgery.
“It was so hard because in one aspect you were just so worried about her and you wanted to be with her but you’re also in a game that we wanted to win. It was sad to turn it off at that point but as soon as the game ended, we were back focusing on Mere,” noted Wernli, who is joined in the starting lineup by her sister Kate, a 5-11 freshman.
“It was a major blow. We talked about it at practice, we’re going to love on Mere but when it comes to practice and games, we have to separate that emotion. She’s been with us the entire time … she’s our biggest encourager in practice and games. She’s there every single day.”
The Lady Spartans had to refocus as a team, realizing players off the bench needed to contribute more while the starters would have to expand their roles. It’s been a work in progress.
“I like the direction we’re heading … everyone is picking up a little more slack than they were used to which helps us,” she said. “This is why you play high school basketball to get a shot at the gold ball. We were sad when we lost in the championship game as sophomores, but last year when we lost on a buzzer beater in overtime, we were angry. That was tough.”
Wernli has been able to focus on her senior season after signing a national letter-of-intent during the early signing season to play collegiately at Abilene Christian University. She’ll play for ACU’s 11th-year head coach Julie Goodenough, the former head women’s coach at Oklahoma State.
“ACU being a Christian school was huge for me, I’ve wanted to go there since I was little,” Wernli said. “I was first recruited by coach (Drew) Cole. He connected me with the head coach, and I absolutely adore her. Coach Goodenough was amazing. It’s an amazing campus, everything just fell into place,
“They’ve been Division I, starting in the Southland Conference and recently they moved to the WAC (Western Athletic Conference), Coach Goodenough works around academics, she puts the student in front of athletes in the way she coaches and that was another reason I liked it,” added Wernli, who plans to major in biochemistry with a goal of becoming an anesthesiologist.
With the regular season winding down, Bixby’s seniors were honored in a recent home game with Owasso, along with their family.
“Going into Senior Night I hadn’t been emotional at all because it wasn’t our last game here since we’re hosting regionals and it’s not our last game together because we have the playoffs,” noted Wernli, who was joined during the Senior Night ceremony by her parents, sister and 10-year-old brother Luke.
“But walking out and seeing my dad cry was emotional. I think being away from my sister is going to be the hardest part. We do everything together on the court and off the court … we’re together 24-7. She’s my best friend.
“I think it hit me that it wasn’t ending but it’s getting close to the end. I need to be more grateful and enjoy the moment. We’ve been here all together for a long time and it was nice to be recognized for it.”