KENSINGTON — On the court, they meet as competitors. But off the court, girls’ basketball teams from several northwest Kansas high schools have set their rivalry aside to launch a unified fight for one of their own.
Raegan Boden, a junior at Thunder Ridge High School in Kensington, expected playing in this week’s state basketball tournament would be the biggest challenge facing her this spring. Instead, the 17-year-old girl is recovering from a major surgery and preparing to start radiation and chemotherapy after two masses were found on her brain.
Boden was the first player off the bench to begin the season, but has been forced to sit out several games and miss school after she was diagnosed with brain cancer Feb. 19.
“It’s hard not being with your team every single day,” Boden said. “They’re my sisters.”
It’s a sistership that clearly crosses school colors. The girls’ basketball coach and team at Lakeside High School in Downs — which plays against Thunder Ridge — was quick to organize a fundraising effort in Boden’s name.
T-shirts featuring the image of a basketball and the words, “Raegan Strong: No one fights alone,” are being sold online. The campaign had raised approximately $4,000 to benefit the Boden family as of Thursday afternoon, and sales will continue through Sunday.
High school student council groups also have raised money to help the Smith Center family offset expenses, and the family has been flooded with mail, well wishes and prayers, said Kathi Boden, Raegan’s mother.
On Thursday, one of Raegan’s wishes came true. She was able to suit up with her team and take the bench at the Class 1A Division I state tournament in Hays, even gaining permission to attend the captain’s meeting. The Kansas State High School Activities Association also announced her name with the other Thunder Ridge players.
Her team simply wants to do everything possible to help lift Raegan’s spirits, said Darren Grauerholz, the Thunder Ridge girls’ coach.
“Right now, it’s not about us at all,” he said. “Right now, we just want to make sure she’s doing the best she can. There’s just so many bigger things going on right now than basketball.”
The Thunder Ridge team wore their grey "Raegan Strong" shirts during pre-game warm-ups, and nearly all of the school's fan section also sported the matching shirts. Raegan, wearing a white rose corsage pinned to her t-shirt, was all smiles as she stood in the line-up with her teammates during introductions.
"Make Raegan proud!" the girls yelled at the end of their huddle, taking the court. And they did just that, defeating Rural Vista 48 to 44.
The family traveled to the state basketball tournament in Hays on Thursday after medical appointments in Kearney, Neb., the same day. The timing worked out for Raegan to attend the game, a fact the family is chalking up to answered prayers.
“The prayers and the thoughts — I know that is God working through everyone,” Kathi Boden said. “You’ve gotta love a small community. … I think that was the power of prayer and God making that happen. We are definitely feeling the love and the support and the prayers from people near and far.”
It became clear in February that Raegan was not feeling well. She began complaining of severe headaches and seemed fatigued. Her family and doctors initially thought it was a sinus infection. But when she didn’t improve with treatment, additional tests were ordered as a precaution. The diagnosis came Feb. 19, then surgery just two days later.
“She’s been a trouper though this whole thing,” Kathi Boden said. “She’s got a smile on her face almost the whole time.”
Several area schools — including Osborne, Lakeside, Little River and Thunder Ridge — showed support for Raegan and the Boden family by special ordering shirts for their entire girls’ basketball team — each school choosing a different color. The Osborne team even wore their shirts and asked for a photo with the Thunder Ridge team when the two met in the sub-state semifinals, Grauerholz said.
Several people watching in the stands also were wearing their “Raegan shirts” for that game, and the gesture was enough to move some athletes to tears, he said.
“For someone to be so young, in high school, and go through this, it just really hits home,” he said.
The solidarity and support Raegan has received from area high schools near and far has helped her through a difficult time, she said.
“It is like the most amazing thing ever to see how people react to this,” she said. “It’s really like a huge group hug from everywhere, all of our communities and different places I don’t even know.