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By Buck Ringgold | Photo by Jessica Sumrall Photography

Haley Mitchel knows about second chances. 

As a player at Okarche, a girls basketball program steeped in tradition, Mitchel played in two state title games but came up short in each one. But she got to experience the thrill of winning a gold ball when Mitchel returned to her alma mater and became an assistant coach with the Lady Warriors, being part of three state-title squads.

When Mitchel became the program's head coach in 2020, she had the team on the precipice of making it to the state tournament her first season, having won their regional and making the area tournament title, needing two chances to reach state. But they didn't make it, dropping the area final and then turning around the next night and coming up short in the area consolation final.

The Lady Warriors now have a second chance to get two more chances in Mitchel's second season at the helm. Is the second time the charm?

Okarche won its Class A Area II regional championship on Monday night, besting Stuart 76-55 at Tulsa's Regent Prep. That means the Lady Warriors get to return to the area final needing one more win to reach state, as they play Saturday in Kellyville to face Vanoss.

A loss sends the Lady Warriors into a do-or-die area consolation final next Monday, a position they most certainly would not rather be in.

"We made it to the area finals (last season) and got beat that Friday and Saturday night," Mitchel said. "Friday, we got beat, then we came back that Saturday and lost in a very close game, so I think they're on a mission to where they don't want to be in that situation again; they want to find a way to get there."

Mitchel played at Okarche under her mother, legendary coach Cherie Myers. Haley went to the state tournament all four seasons as a Lady Warrior, but never won the gold ball, winning two state runner-up silver balls instead.

After going on to play at Oklahoma Christian, Mitchell rejoined her mother, this time as an assistant from 2009-17. The two were part of a successful run at Okarche, with the Lady Warriors going to six state championship games and winning three gold balls, in 2010, 2013 and 2014.

"She was extremely influential in me deciding to pursue coaching and teaching," Mitchel said of Myers. "I also looked up to her and enjoyed watching her have the influence and impact on young lives through coaching.

"I also loved how she treated each player like a daughter and continued those relationships after players graduated. When deciding what career path to choose, I knew I wanted to do something where I felt I could hopefully make a difference like she did."

Following a loss to Seiling in the 2017 Class A state title game, Myers announced her retirement after a career that spanned 38 seasons, five state titles and more than 800 wins. Mitchel decided to leave the coaching ranks as well, focusing on raising her family.

But Mitchel got a second chance to return to the sidelines, this time as the Lady Warriors' head coach.

In 2020, she returned to coaching when Okarche tabbed her to replace Kelli Jennings, who left to become the coach at Northern Oklahoma College-Enid.

Mitchel jumped at the chance. She also had a very valuable sounding board in Myers.

"She taught me a great deal about X's and O's and the game of basketball," Mitchel said of her mother. "However, more than that, she taught me to value and appreciate each player and coach I work with. She showed me how coaching is more about teaching life lessons at the end of the day."

Myers also passed down to her daughter the ability to offer assistance to others in their chosen trade.

"She also taught me to appreciate and respect the profession I have chosen by always being willing to help another coach and ask a coach for help when needed," Mitchel said. "She has formed so many wonderful relationships through coaching, and at the end of the day that's what matters most.

"My goal is to be able to do the same thing: form meaningful relationships and show young ladies what strengths and positive attributes they have that will allow them to be successful past high school basketball."

Of course, taking over as coach in 2020 meant not only having to deal with players but also try to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other programs, the Lady Warriors were hit hard by COVID, and that had an effect on the team falling short of reaching state.

"We got hit hard with COVID last year and that was OK; everyone had to go through those bouts and we sat a long time before playoffs," Mitchel said. "Districts was our first game back in three weeks; we sat three weeks before districts and that really fazed us last year.

"We just couldn't get going and get going, and so our mission this year was keep our stamina, keep our focus the whole time and find a way to get there."

So far so good for the Lady Warriors in Mitchel's second season at the helm. They stand at 24-2, having lost to two Class 2A teams in Hooker and Watonga. It's a team that has size, speed and the ability to shoot from the outside.

The Lady Warriors entered the playoffs ranked - you guessed it - second in Class A behind defending state champion and undefeated Hydro-Eakly. Okarche, which has won five state titles, hasn't won a gold ball since 2014 when Mitchel assisted Myers.

"They're very coachable, very intense, and I love that," Mitchel said of her team. "It doesn't matter if it's practice or a game, they're focused. We kind of set goals every practice, every game, and here's what our mission is, and they really try to accomplish that.

"I've had great leadership, and they've done a great job of pushing each other, and I think that's helped us be in the situation we're in."

Okarche is still a relatively young team. The Lady Warriors have five seniors; one of whom tore her ACL and is out for the season in Karsyn Vallerand.

"She contributed a great deal last year," Mitchel said. "She started off and on and averaged around eight points and three rebounds a game."

Two other seniors, forward Adyson Arms and guard Sophie Vandendriessche, were in the starting lineup in Monday's regional championship game.

The other starters are junior center Emma Stover, who led the way with 22 points, and the sister tandem of Jalie Rother, a junior forward, and Jadyn Rother, a sophomore point guard who had 20 points and hit several 3's to fuel a 25-3 Okarche first-half run that put the game out of reach.

Like the other players, Jalie Rother knows the pain of falling one game shy of state and is destined not to let that happen again.

"It was super hard," she said. "That was going to push us to be our best that we can be and even with the win (Monday), we're still focusing on things that we obviously can get better from.

"Our main goal, even from last year, was let's knock things down one at a time, one step at a time, but we're going to get back to the state tournament and we're going to do our best to like win."

To ensure history doesn't repeat, Rother along with her coach have stressed defense.

"For us, it's going to come down to our defense; that's what we've always prided ourselves on at Okarche is defense and then out-hustling everyone," Mitchel said. "It's got to be, 'We're going to outwork you, we're going to play our game, we're going to run up and down,' but it's got to be us playing our style, playing our game.

"So I think that's going to be huge to us of, again, setting our goals each game, taking one game at a time and seeing what's the best we can do to take someone else out of their basketball game."

And Mitchel is once again going to seek the counsel of someone else, Myers, who was in attendance in Monday's win.

"I still call her before and after games to bounce ideas off of her and to talk about things she saw on the court that my team can improve on or did well," Mitchel said. "It's nice to have another set of eyes that are able to critique and praise things.

"I've also had her come to practices at different times during the year to watch and provide insight to what she is seeing that I may be missing."

Mitchel got a second chance at a gold ball at Okarche as an assistant. In her second season as the coach at her alma mater, Mitchel has two more chances to get back to state and attempt to add to the program's rich heritage.

For Mitchel and the Lady Warriors, just one chance will be more than plenty.