ALEXANDRIA, PA. (WTAJ) – The last four years, Halee Smith and Hayden Taylor have been right in the middle of the greatest stretch in Juniata Valley Lady Hornets program history.
From a young age, the two have always been by each other’s side.
“I’ve played with her my whole life,” Taylor said.
“We always had that special bond,” Smith said.
A bond validated by basketball.
“Growing up playing together that long, you just learn how each other play,” Taylor said.
Inserted into the starting five as freshman at Juniata Valley, their impact was immediate.
“We had lost to Altoona by five and we had a shot to win the game, and everyone thought we were crazy to play 6A Altoona and in that moment, I turned to Joel and said, ‘Joel this is going to be a special group, they are going to be special,” head coach Rachelle Hopsicker said.
After two years, the girls helped the Lady Hornets to two appearances in the state championship, but both times the result was not what they wanted.
“It was really irritating. To this day, we still talk with Maddie, Syd, Tae, we go on and watch the old video,” Smith said.
“But we’re like okay this is going to carry on and we can still make something special of this with the players we have,” Taylor said.
Fast forward to their senior year, the pieces started to come together, a fairytale ending seemed possible.
“The two of them just lifted everyone up and they made you want to be better for them,” Hopsicker said.
Coming off a win against two-time defending state champ Bellwood-Antis.
“We were playing our best basketball the last four years,” Hopsicker said.
But everything changed the following game against Saltsburg.
“I remember she [Halee] put her hand in there and the look on her face was, ‘Oh my goodness, what just happened,’ ” Hopsicker said.
Halee broke her end, effectively ending her season.
“I was just torn apart because you never expect to get hurt, especially in your senior year at the end of the season,” Smith said.
“To not have her out there with me, it just kind of felt like a constant scramble, we literally felt like we were lost,” Taylor said.
Three weeks after Smith’s season ended, Juniata Valley played Bishop McCort for the right to go to the state tournament, but Hayden and Halee’s careers suddenly came to a halt.
“When the buzzer ran out, I can just remember feeling that empty feeling like this is over like my high school career, all the memories over the last four years, we’re not making anymore of those, it was heartbreaking,” Taylor said.
“We got into the locker room after that McCort game and she had the mascara running down her face and she was showing that emotion, and she turns to me and goes, ‘It’s not fair what happened. It’s not fair that she’s not playing, like those are the things that it’s overwhelming,” Hopsicker said.
Two months later, the girls say the pain has subsided a little bit, the two again by each other’s side, a legacy not represented by hardware but pride.
“I know we made our coaches proud, our teammates proud, and we accomplished so much,” Taylor said.
“They will go down as the best group of girls to come through Juniata Valley,” Hopsicker said.
Smith is off next year to play basketball at Quinnipiac, while Taylor will play at University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.