There was nothing easy about what Arab girls basketball coach Brad Kitchens and his team went through on Wednesday night at Legacy Arena at the BJCC.
The Lady Knights were pushed to the brink, and at some points past it, during a thrilling 52-49 victory over Brewbaker Tech in the AHSAA Class 5A semifinals. It was a rollercoaster of emotions throughout.
For Kitchens, it was perhaps the biggest game of his coaching career, at least until Saturday’s championship game against Pleasant Grove. In some ways, though, it was more than simply a game.
“For those of you who don’t know, I had open heart surgery, quadruple bypass, about a year and a half ago,” Kitchens said during his team’s postgame press conference. “It kicked my butt, man. I was laying over in the hospital and (the players are) the encouragement that got me back. I fought to get back from that. I knew what me might could be. I didn’t know if we would do it or not, but I knew what we had the potential to do. I just fought hard. I wanted to get back to coach these girls. They’re special girls.”
Kitchens’ heart surgery came in August of 2021. His team wasn’t far away from beginning preseason practice. Kitchens said he noticed he couldn’t catch his breath while walking his dog.
“I’d had Covid like everybody had Covid,” Kitchens said. “I just thought it was remnants of Covid. But, my wife and my son kept on me (to) go see the doctor. I’m like ‘Nah, I’m okay.’ I’m not the typical looking heart attack guy.”
He relented and went to see his family doctor and followed with a trip to the cardiologist for tests.
“Well, I bombed the stress test,” Kitchens said.
Kitchens said he was scheduled to have a stent or two put in his heart. Kitchens said the doctor quickly closed him up before putting in the stents.
“When I woke up, my wife said, ‘You’re going to have open heart surgery,’” Kitchens said. “I had 95 percent blockage in three of the arteries and 90 in the fourth. And then I had to have a heart valve replaced. They had heard that murmur with the heart valve.”
His first question following the surgery was about his coaching future. He was told he could continue as long as the heavy lifting was done by his assistant coaches, and he kept the stress to a minimum. When he came home from the hospital, he was greeted by his players.
“We had signs saying that we love him, it was really sweet,” said Sydney Ferguson, who had 16 points and six rebounds in Wednesday’s win.
How emotional was that homecoming?
“I was crying for sure,” Kitchens said.
There’s been plenty of emotion, as well, during this season’s journey to the championship game. On Tuesday night, the current Arab players received handwritten letters from members of the school’s 2017 Final Four girls basketball team. Those players had received letters in 2017 from the 2007 team that advanced to the championship game.
“We’ve got four girls on the team whose older sisters played back then,” Kitchens said. “They didn’t know the letters were coming. It surprised the girls. It was just a real emotional moment.”
On Thursday, the Lady Knights worked together toward winning for the 22nd time this season. It didn’t start well, though, with Brewbaker Tech taking a 14-7 lead after the first quarter.
How did the Lady Knights turn it around?
“She made the suggestion, let’s go (man-to-man on defense),” Kitchens said, nodding toward Ferguson. “She’s out on the court, she sees what’s happening a lot of the time. They all make good suggestions to me.”
Ferguson and Bennett Elrod were starters reaching double figures in scoring and Bryleigh Bodine had a team-high in rebounds (eight) and assists (four). But it was sophomore Maggie Chastain who came off the bench to lead the way by hitting all four of her free throw attempts and three late free throws.
“Maggie has really has come on for us late in the season,” Kitchens said. “She was just a marginal player at the beginning of the year. Good player off the bench. Now, she’s our seventh starter. I feel like we got seven players, any one of them could start.”
This team has one more challenge and it’s a doozy. But Kitchens relishes the opportunity and gives one more tip of the cap for being here to coach.
“I say, I love that dog to death, he saved my life,” Kitchens said with a laugh.
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