FITHIAN — Stephanie Marsh knew this upcoming season coaching the Oakwood girls’ basketball team was going to have a different feel.
Weeks before the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
See, the third-year coach of the Comets would have to build her team without one of the program’s all-time best players in Katelyn Young. The 6-foot-1 forward graduated from Oakwood this past spring and is set to begin her freshman season at Murray State this upcoming winter.
Plus, the pandemic limited what Marsh — who earned The News-Gazette’s Female Athlete of the Year honors in 2008 after starring in volleyball, basketball and track and field at Oakwood — could do this summer.
No trips to Paris for a shootout or up to Bourbonnais for a tournament at Olivet Nazarene, where Marsh ended her college basketball career after spending two seasons at Parkland. Even getting to use a basketball among her returning players has presented its own challenges because of restrictions in place amid the pandemic.
But no, that didn’t top the list of reasons why Marsh would have to prepare differently ahead of this upcoming season.
She and her husband, Cody, are expecting their third child in mid-October.
“I’m having a girl. Finally,” Marsh said with a laugh.
The new addition to the Marsh family will join brothers Carson, 4, and Levi, 2. It’s also giving Marsh some pause about if she’ll start the season on Oakwood’s bench if the girls’ basketball campaign begins on time in mid-November.
If not, assistant coach Jesse Johnson will handle a more prominent role on the sidelines.
“I am very hopeful that I’m able to coach while being on maternity leave,” Marsh said. “That is my plan is to be back here for the girls. I had two C-sections before, so this will be a C-section delivery as well. The recovery is a little bit longer.”
Marsh has guided Oakwood to a 47-15 record during her first two seasons in charge of her alma mater, with Oakwood winning the Vermilion County Tournament championship in 2019 and placing second at the 2020 event. The Comets reached a Class 2A regional title game in 2019, falling short against Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, before losing to eventual regional champion Unity in a close 50-47 regional semifinal game this past February.
Replacing Young’s production — she scored 2,361 points during her high school career — and the steady presence of guard Aubrey Wells will fall on a cast of characters. Senior forward Aaliyah Denius, Marsh’s younger sister, is back along with other key returnees like junior guards Ashlynn Pinnick and Karsen Rupp.
Not having a traditional summer will mean an even steeper learning curve for the Comets later this fall ahead of preseason practices. Again, if the pandemic doesn’t create more havoc for the upcoming season.
“I’m thankful that most of my girls play volleyball or soccer, so they are all involved in those sports that happen before basketball and come into the season in shape,” Marsh said. “But assuming the season starts like a normal season, we only have two weeks with the girls before the games start. With our leading scorer being gone and having different girls filling different roles, it would have been nice to have a typical offseason and get a jump start on next season, but it is what it is. We’re not the only team going through this.”
Marsh is also going through a pregnancy unlike any she has experienced so far, wearing masks to her appointments throughout the pandemic.
“It’s definitely a lot different,” Marsh said. “They do allow me to have one person at my appointments, but because my kids were out of daycare, my husband will take time to watch them when I’m at my appointment. Having all these precautions even before you get to the appointment, it’s definitely made me think a lot more about what I’m doing than with the first two pregnancies.”
Being pregnant amid a pandemic has not only made Marsh more aware of her own health the past five months, but also has given her pause at times about coaching again. She tries to push aside those thoughts, however, when she thinks about the upcoming season. The chance to coach her younger sister during her final high school season and the opportunity to continue a successful stint leading the Comets are two key motivational pieces for Marsh whenever she has doubts.
“Obviously before all this I never thought about not coaching, and then the pregnancy hit amid the pandemic,” Marsh said. “I love basketball and being around the girls. I can’t say that I haven’t had my doubts, though, but with all these guidelines that are out there, I’m just trying to stay optimistic.”