HICKS, La. — For the first time in months, there was no need to scramble for a place to practice basketball on Monday at Hicks High School. Not on the dirt court on its campus. Not at a Pentecostal church half an hour away. Not at a rival school 15 miles down the road.
Last Friday, the girls’ basketball team (34-5) won its fourth consecutive state championship among Louisiana’s smallest schools, a remarkable achievement under any circumstances. But the Pirates’ streak has required extraordinary perseverance. The school has been without a gym since Hurricane Laura made landfall in August 2020 with 150-mile-an-hour winds and a tidal surge that reached 17 feet before scything through the state’s western and central parishes.
The auditorium roof ended up in the teachers’ parking lot. Part of the gym roof peeled away like the shell of a crawfish. The court buckled. For more than a year, the roof was not waterproofed; water continued to pour in with each storm, leaving the goals and their supports to rust.
Abandoned lockers in the girls’ dressing room remain filled with moldy shoes and peeling photographs. The empty gym smells of decay, as does the barren auditorium. The coach’s pickup truck is now effectively his office. There are plans, but no guarantees, to have the gym repaired in time for next season.
“It does appear to be the slowest process since they built the pyramids,” said Paul Poe, a former star basketball player, coach and principal at Hicks High.
During the 2020-21 season, the girls’ team often practiced at 4:30 a.m. at another school so Coach Mike Charrier could spend his evenings at an area hospital, where his mother eventually succumbed to the coronavirus. Some players slept in their practice gear to get a few minutes’ extra sleep. Younger players were admonished to get enough nutrition and sleep to maintain their health and stamina and to avoid nodding off in class.
Before the 2021-22 season, Charrier (pronounced share-ee-AY) decided that his players needed some tangible sign of recovery from the hurricane. So he designed a dirt court in front of the school for the boys’ and girls’ teams. Local residents and businesses donated six portable hoops. Trustees from the parish’s jail set up the hoops. The local volunteer fire department filled the base of each goal with water to keep them sturdy in the wind. The parish also donated sandbags to anchor the hoops. The owner of a sawmill fashioned benches made from a pine tree that fell in the schoolyard during the hurricane.
The dirt court was used for preseason conditioning, shooting and dribbling drills. During the final period of each school day, players also practiced shooting outside during phys ed class, careful to avoid dribbling and wrenching their ankles on pine roots. More formal practices for the girls’ team were held in the afternoons at the First United Pentecostal Church in Leesville, La., or in the evenings after rival Simpson High finished its own training.
“Don’t judge these girls by what they’ve accomplished,” Charrier, 49, said during a news conference after the state championship game. “Measure them by what they’ve overcome.”
High school sports have become a prime indicator of the challenges Louisiana faces with climate change: rising sea levels, coastal erosion, more muscular hurricanes, rapid intensification of storms and heavier rainfall.
The gym at South Cameron High, along the state’s southwest coast, was destroyed by Laura, leaving the basketball teams to practice in the cafeteria. St. Louis Catholic High School of Lake Charles, La., just inland, also lost its gym in the storm. Last month, its girls’ basketball team won a second consecutive state title among private schools despite having played every game on the road for two years.
Laura’s destruction continued, tragically, far from the coast. Hicks, an unincorporated community in Vernon Parish, is roughly 100 miles inland. Cynthia Miller, a 14-year-old freshman at Hicks High, was killed when a tree fell on her house. Two men in their 40s died in the parish from heat-related illnesses while clearing hurricane debris as the heat index climbed above 100 degrees. Sixteen thousand acres of timber, worth $70 million, were heavily damaged in the portion of Kisatchie National Forest located in the parish, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Another catastrophic storm, Hurricane Ida, also punishing with 150 m.p.h. winds, battered southeast Louisiana last September. Grand Isle School, located on a barrier island south of New Orleans, was forced to cancel the 2021-22 basketball season when it had not reopened by January. Its players remained scattered around Louisiana and neighboring states.
The Hicks High Pirates have kept playing and kept winning, but as a vagabond team that has held its designated home games for two seasons at two other schools in Vernon Parish. This past season, players wore the team motto — no gym, no problem — on shirts during pregame warm-ups.
To motivate his team at practice one day, Charrier brought a spoon to the dirt court, scooped up some soil and planted a seed, telling his players, “Everything needs a little dirt on it to grow. We’re going to find the nutrients in this soil. If you let the dirt of the world get on top of you and you’re constantly finding the negatives, you’re not going to grow.”
Still, Charrier acknowledged that “no gym, no problem” often meant no gym, big problem. Players traveled five days a week to practices and games. Sometimes they didn’t return from practice until 9 p.m. to do their schoolwork. Some teachers told the school principal that players seemed drained. So were some parents who preferred to wait several hours in the parking lot during far-flung practices instead of driving back and forth twice over long distances.
“You want to give up sometimes,” said Lauren Quinn, 18, Hicks High’s star senior forward. “You get tired and fed up with it. You start feeling sorry for yourself and you’re like, ‘Why don’t we have this gym yet? It’s been two years.’ But it’s that hunger and dedication of the girls and parents that keeps you fighting for it.”
Louisiana is a football-mad state, but there are pockets of tiny, rural schools in the piney woods near the Texas border where basketball is king. Six of the nine high schools in Vernon Parish, including Hicks, do not offer football. Basketball practice starts the day after Labor Day and teams can play more than 40 games. Practice resumes again in May, and Charrier tries to have his team play as many as 60 games in June during summer camps.
Basketball is handed down from grandparents to parents to children like an inheritance.
At Hicks High, players on the boys’ team sometimes drive to the dirt court, leave their headlights on and shoot during the night.
“Our school is our community,” said Jennifer Wilbanks, the principal at Hicks High, who has a daughter on the team. “When you have something that is successful, everybody jumps on board. I’ve seen that in small towns across the state. That’s where the excitement is. There’s something about the smell of popcorn and a ball bouncing.”
Everyone at Hicks High is more than ready for the smell of popcorn in the gym to replace the smell of mold and mildew.
Indecision about whether to rebuild or repair the gym along with insurance and supply-chain issues have been blamed for the construction delay. Bidding for the projected $3 million repair project was scheduled to end Monday. The tentative date for reopening is Oct. 31, a timeline that seems to foster more wariness than optimism.
Whatever the eventual date, it cannot come soon enough, Wilbanks said. “Our people are exhausted. That goes for everybody.”