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Remembering the 1998-99 Coyotes

 

The 1998-99 Weatherford College Coyotes are remembered by fans as the greatest basketball team in the history of the school.

1998-99 WC mens bsktballThey are remembered by their coach, Mark Osina, as family who stood by his side during the darkest year of his life.

On the court, the Coyotes hardly lost at all that season, finishing with a 34-3 record. They won the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference and placed third in the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament.

But the biggest loss Osina and his team had to deal with was off the court. During that season, Osina lost his oldest daughter, Lacey, in an automobile accident. She was riding with three friends from Brock, Staci Lee, Mandi McWhorter and Whitney Welch, all of whom also died in the wreck caused by a drunk driver.

“Those guys gave me strength,” Osina said, his eyes misting as he recalled the Dec. 19, 1998 accident. “I wanted to keep coaching. I didn’t want to leave the gym. They definitely helped me through it.”

Osina poured himself into leading the Coyotes to their greatest season ever. They began the year 14-0 and won 24 of their first 25 games.

And while they came up just short of a national championship, they were compiling a season not to be forgotten, something still talked about in reverent tones today by folks at the school, the town and especially the players and coaches. Through it all, Osina knew in his heart that Lacey, a standout player for the Brock Lady Eagles, would be proud of what her dad and his team were accomplishing.

“After that the season had a bigger meaning for all of us. We played for something more than just a championship or scholarships at the next level. We played for Coach Osina’s family,” said Nerijus Puida, a member of the team from Lithuania. “It was an emotional time for all of us. We had a few miracle wins, especially the one in the regional finals against Howard. It really felt like someone was helping us from the above.”

The Coyotes trailed that game by a dozen points with three minutes to play in regulation. They rallied to force overtime and capped their comeback when Arunas Drasutis nailed a 3-pointer with a couple of seconds left to seal a 91-85 victory.

“Nothing was like before. The only thing we could do was to play basketball,” said another former Coyote, Daniel Novak, from Slovakia.

Travis Hull, a local member of the team from Peaster, said, “I knew this team was special after tragedy struck Coach and his family, and how we pulled together and gave everything we had for the team and Coach to get him to the national tournament.

“I also think this team was special because we played as a team. We didn’t have any selfish players. I never played on a team that could get the ball up the court so fast and could score anywhere on the court.”

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The Coyotes could indeed score. They topped 100 points 14 times, and surpassed 90 in another 14 games. Their lowest point total in a game was 69, and they reached 129 in one game.

The roster featured eight players, sophomores Hull, Puida, Drasutis (Lithuania) and Charles Ray (Texarkana), along with freshmen Novak, Warren Busby (Houston), Mindaugas Burneika (Lithuania) and Jared Johnson (Houston).

Drasutis and Puida earned All-American status from that team. The next season, Burneika was also honored.

“They were one of those teams, if you watched, you’d come back and watch again,” Osina said.

Busby had vivid memories from the season.

“I remember my first visit like yesterday, going back to the dorm talking to my fellow classmate (Johnson) eating Chicken Express, and thinking it’s going to be boring as hell here,” said the team’s starting point guard. “As the summertime passed and school started and practice began, Coach weeded out a few bad players and we started to notice we had a close group of players that really enjoyed playing together and loved each other’s company. Eight strong.

“We ended up going like 16-1 before the Christmas break – and coming back to bad news. Coach Osina brought back strength, courage, sacrifice, love and commitment that bonded us together to play hard.”

Busby also had his own special memory from the regional finals.

“Coach called timeout with a few minutes left and told me to just drive and dish. Arunas and Nerijus hit three or four 3-pointers that put us in the lead,” he said. “We ended up winning, and as the crowd went crazy I remember seeing Coach’s wife (Liz Osina) holding her necklace cross and rubbing it very emotionally. I’m very happy and proud to be a part of this team. It’s a very special one.”

The Coyotes were actually coming off a very good season in 1997-98. They won their conference and earned the top seed at the regional tournament, though they were upset in the first round. That setback, Puida said, was also inspiration for the great season coming up next, despite only returning three players, himself, Drasutis and Ray. Hull transferred in from Midwestern State University.

“What we learned from the previous year is that the team was divided into two camps, starters versus second five. In most games Coach Osina substituted all five guys and we played pretty much the same minutes.

“So the next year we decided that chemistry within the team is one of the most important things. We had a few practices and understood early that we had enough talent to win, but we needed to be a team.

“We decided to have a team party – only players invited, nobody else – and tried to get to know each other and share our stories. We had an amazing time, and all of us got along right away. After that practice the next day I felt that this team would be special.”

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Puida recalled one game in which the Coyotes led by 30 points at the half against a good team on the road. It symbolized exactly how good they were, he said.

“Coach Osina said let’s just stay on the court and enjoy the halftime show, there is no need to go to the locker room,” Puida said.

“We played an excellent first half of the season, and then there was a Christmas break. Me and my future wife, Dainora, who played on WC women’s team, decided to visit our friends in Chicago for few days. We got the news about the tragedy in Weatherford. Once we landed at DFW we went straight to the funeral.

“I remember I was so worried to see Coach Osina at our first practice after the break. He walked into the gym, and I hugged him and said I love you.”

Osina still remains in touch with all of the players. In fact, he walked Dainora down the aisle at the wedding.

“Even before the season started I knew they were special,” Osina said. “[Lady Coyotes] Coach [Bob] McKinley told me at a practice, ‘This team’s got a chance to go a long way.’”

McKinley said he also saw something unique in the group other than their talent. He saw the character they would demonstrate later that season.

“They were not just basketball players, they were great people,” McKinley said. “They understood completely what it means to be a family, and that’s the thing about family, when people need you the most you rally together. We all rallied because we love Mark and his family.”

They also understood that while no amount of basketball victories could fill the void, their new goal was to honor Lacey with a great season. And though he’ll never think of that season without also remembering that fateful night, they gave their coach something else on which to reflect.

“Some years it just all fits, and that one had all the right pieces,” Osina said. “They were good guys on and off the court. Very successful, all graduated. I can’t ever remember having to check grades.

“It would be hard to match that group. They were once-in-a-lifetime. And they were there for me and my family, and I’ll always remember that. That’s what Lacey would have wanted.”

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By Rick Mauch

 

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