Friday, March 16, 2012

West Virginia's Stepney, Leary home for NCAAs to the delight of Mamas

Vivian Harrison and Theresa Leary are used to road trips.

Long ones on a winding path to see their daughters play basketball in Morgantown, W.V. They often make the nearly seven-hour drive from Norfolk together.

"I'm so afraid of those mountains," Harrison said. "But I'm there every weekend or every other weekend. I try to keep my eye on the road, not the mountains, and it helps when Theresa and I got involved in a good conversation."

This weekend the drive won't be so far. Harrison and Leary live just 10 minutes away from the Constant Center where their girls, Norfolk's own Linda Stepney and Crystal Leary, will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Tipoff for the first-round game between No. 8 West Virginia (23-9) and No. 9 Texas (18-13) is at 11 a.m.

Moms will be wearing shirts with this photo on front.
You can bet Linda's mom will be there. So will Crystal's. You can spot the two decked out in Mountaineer colors wearing homemade shirts with a picture from a game program on the front. The pic features Linda and Crystal, best friends since forever,  basketball teammates since age 11 and now freshmen college teammates at West Virginia University. The pair led Lake Taylor High School to its first-ever Group AAA state championship in 2010. Linda and Crystal will be getting plenty of support from Lake Taylor High on Saturday, too. Coach Saundra Sawyer is bringing her team and as many Titan supporters as she can find.

Sawyer has been eager to make it to West Virginia to a game this season, but she is even more tickled with this thought. "They're coming to me," she said.

Naturally, the players are just as excited about this coincidental homecoming as the family and friends that can't wait to cheer them on. Mountaineers coach Mike Carey heard the girls singing, "We're coming home!" on the ride to the airport.

By the time the plane touched down at Norfolk International Airport, words weren't necessary.

"As soon as we landed, all we could do is smile," Crystal said.

Of course, the families were there to greet the players. But that airport gathering is nothing compared to the Leary/Stepney contingent poised to invade the Constant Center on Saturday. Theresa Leary said the 20 tickets she and her husband, Chris, pre-ordered were snapped up faster than one can say, "The Mountaineers are coming!" There will be siblings. Cousins. Friends.

And signs. Lots and lots of signs.

"We love Pooh 32!" reads one, letting the world know Crystal's nickname.

"Physical for 40 minutes!" implores another, adorned with a picture of the entire West Virginia team.

"Welcome to the 757, West Virginia!"

Harrison had considered the possibility that the Mountaineers -- the only team in the field of 64 to have a win at No. 1 seed Notre Dame -- might come to Norfolk for first and second rounds.

"I prayed on it," she said. "God has answered my prayers."

The bracket revealing the early round games was the first one unveiled on Selection Monday. Harrison couldn't believe her eyes when she saw West Virginia coming to town with the winner set to meet the winner of No. 1 Standford/No. 16 Hampton. Linda didn't call her until late that night, and the two celebrated.

About 15 minutes before the selection show aired, Theresa Leary received a text from her daughter reminding her to tune in - as though Mom hadn't been thinking about it all day.

"When I saw "West Virginia" up there next to Norfolk, I just started screaming at the top of my lungs," Theresa said. "My son said I about blew his eardrum out."

She then picked up her phone and sent her daughter one simple text:

"My baby's coming home."

That's actually fitting, because for much of the girls' freshmen year, their parents have been bringing "home" to their babies. Theresa Leary said the families have been making the drive to Morgantown every other weekend, sometimes just the moms, other times as a party of 20.

"We just don't want her to feel she's alone," Theresa said.

Even so, Harrison had become used to late-night calls from her daughter, who had the typical freshman growing pains that occur when a kid with close family ties picks a school far, far away.

"In the beginning she cried herself to sleep every night," Harrison said. "She cried every time I left."

One night Linda called and asked Mom to come get her. Harrison reminded her daughter that her old life and her old friends had moved on. And by second semester, Linda adjusted and became happy with the decision to play basketball at a premier Big East program.

"Linda said one of the kids already got her autograph," Harrison said. "I told her to stay humble. She's such an easygoing, amazing girl."

Linda has played in 30 of West Virginia's games, starting 26. She averages 4.4 ppg and 2.8 rpg. Her roommate, Crystal, battled injury early in the season. Crystal has played in 15 games and started three, averaging 2.8 ppg and 3 rpg.

Harrison feels good about West Virginia advancing, noting, "If they take care of the ball, with their defense, they should be OK."

Either way Mom, or should we say Moms, will be cheering.

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