T.J. Foltz said he never expected Keala Rauschenburg, his stepdaughter, to get much playing time when she tried out for the Jefferson County Middle School basketball team as an eighth-grader.
Rauschenburg, now a 16-year-old sophomore who plays on the junior varsity team at Madras High School, has Down syndrome and had very little experience playing on organized teams before middle school. But even without a team of her own, her life revolved around basketball. She had spent hours and hours cheering on her older brothers and cousins at their games and tournaments, and during the summer she would shoot hoops outside the house or at the Warm Springs Boys & Girls Club just about every day. She was fascinated by the Madras High players, carried her basketball to her brother’s baseball tournaments and would tag along to practice with Foltz, who coached various middle and high school basketball teams in Madras over the years.
“I went to the school and said, you know, my daughter loves the game of basketball,” Foltz recounted. “I want her to come out (and practice), if she’s willing. I don’t expect her to play. I just want her to be around a group of kids and be able to have the opportunity to be on a team, and they said, bring her out.”
But her new teammates did expect to see her on the floor.
“Even if it was a close game, she would still play — we asked our coaches if she could play,” explained Jiana Smith-Francis, a childhood friend and middle school teammate of Rauschenburg’s who now plays on the Madras varsity squad. “We’d always try to get her an open shot.”
When asked why the other girls thought it was so important for Rauschenburg to get playing time, Smith-Francis said that Keala “means a lot to us.”
“She makes everybody happy, and she gets involved,” Smith-Francis explained. “She does the best she can in what she can do.”
Her teammates and coaches on the freshman and junior varsity teams have approached playing time similarly, and Rauschenburg often plays in the final minute of the game, if not the final minute of each quarter. Her coaches discuss the situation with the opposing team before games, and her teammates (and, usually, opponents) try to give her the opportunity to take a few open shots.
“At the beginning, I was trying to figure out how I was going to do this, how I was going to insert her into games,” said Butch David, the Madras JV girls basketball coach. “But we were in a packed house at Sweet Home (in December), and she came on in, and (Sweet Home) knew about it and let her shoot. She swished a 3-pointer, and the Sweet Home fans jumped up and gave her a standing ovation for making that shot. And it made me feel proud that she was on our team.”
David said Rauschenburg’s teammates make a point of keeping her involved in the game, even if it means slowing down a fast break or getting a rebound and dribbling the ball back out to the perimeter, where Keala prefers to shoot, instead of tipping the ball right back in the basket.
“One thing I love about our girls is that they include her,” David said. “They include her in our free-throw drills. We have a one-and-one; if you miss two you’ve got to do sprints, two sprints up and down. If you miss one, you only have to do one sprint. And she jumps right in and gets right involved and does the sprints with the girls.”
Rauschenburg can be intensely shy around people she does not know well, and her mother, Marcie Stacona, was nervous about how Keala would handle both the preparation and travel for games and the experience of playing in front of a large group of people. When Rauschenburg was younger, she had tried Special Olympics basketball, but her parents noticed that she seemed uncomfortable playing with larger teens and adults (now, years later, Keala is listed at 5-feet, 1-inch, on her team roster.) But when she came into games with her school teams, she did not shrink away from the moment.
“I think, if anything, she was more comfortable with it than I was,” Stacona said. “I’m like, what’s going to happen? I wanted to go out there and tie her shoe. I wanted to go into the bathroom and help her get ready, and T.J.’s like no, leave her alone. And when she started (high school), they’d warm up (in another building) and walk over here, and I said, I’ll walk her over here. And she’s like, ‘Mom, I can make it! I’m growing up! I can do it myself!’”
Stacona said Keala has even gotten better about throwing her hands up on defense over the past three seasons. In retrospect, Stacona said, she can see other times when basketball coaxed her out of her shell, such as the Boys & Girls Club talent show when Keala, then 10 or 11, and a number of other kids performed a dribbling demonstration in front of what must have seemed like a huge crowd.
“All they did was dribble balls for weeks, and she went up in front of a couple hundred people, dribbling the ball and did all these drills,” Stacona said. “I would never, ever had thought she would have done that. She’s always been shy, but she has that interest in basketball, and that’s what’s coming out.”
Of course, few members of the Madras basketball program are strangers to Rauschenburg. Several of her current teammates are relatives, and many others have gone to school with her for much of their lives. Foltz has never been her coach, but he has coached in the program for years and is leading the freshman team this season. David met Keala back when he worked at her first elementary school in Warm Springs. Her brothers, Jason Smartlowit, now 25, and Austin Rauschenburg, now 20, both played basketball at Madras, as did numerous other family members, including her cousins Mariah and Briana Stacona. But many of her friends and family members said they thought Rauschenburg could have found a supportive team even if she did not live in a community as small and closely knit as Madras and Warm Springs.
“I think most people like her; I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t, honestly,” Foltz said. “She’s really quiet and reserved until she gets to know you. I think it might not have been the same experience, playingwise, at another school, in a different area, she might not play as much.”
But nothing beats playing in front of the hometown crowd. And while there are plenty of highlights from the past three seasons to choose from (Rauschenburg is rather proud of a game last year when she scored seven points at home against Gladstone), several of Keala’s friends and family members said they will never forget a middle school game at Warm Springs K-8 Academy, where many fans from both schools knew Keala personally. When she was put in the game, her mother said it was like “the roof exploded.”
“When she stepped on to the court, you heard all the love,” Smartlowit, her oldest brother, recounted. “That’s one of my favorite memories of her. She was always at our practices, always at open gyms. I love when she’s out on the court, because that’s where she belongs.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org