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Julie Spencer peers out the window of a Kenmore Air Express Piper Chieftain Aircraft en route to Yakima, Wash., from Toledo, Wash., on Saturday, March 8. The company flew her from her father's funeral so she could play in the 2A state basketball championship. (Photo: Brandi Kruse/KIRO Radio)

'Something special': Star basketball player caps emotional day with a state title

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As Julie Spencer and her teammates collapsed in each others' arms at center court inside the Yakima Valley SunDome on Saturday, a roller coaster day of emotions for the 17-year-old high school junior came to an end.

The Bearcats of W.F. West High School in Chehalis had won their first-ever 2A state championship in girls' basketball, and Spencer was named the tournament's most valuable player after posting seven rebounds and a game-high 20 points to help her team best the Mark Morris Monarchs, 48-37.

"I knew it was going to be one of the hardest days of my life," said Spencer, a 6'2" forward who is poised to become the second person in her family to play Division I basketball after graduation. "I just had faith in God, and I knew my dad would be looking over me and praying for me."

Just hours earlier, Spencer was halfway across the state at her father's funeral in Toledo, Wash. James Spencer, 58, died last month after a year-long battle with melanoma.

"It's devastating," said Carrie Mitchell, 32, who is Julie's older sister. "We just felt like we had more time."

The youngest of 10 children, Carrie said Julie and their father were the closest of the bunch.

"She was the baby. She was his pride and joy," she said of Julie. "They would spend their weekends hiking and playing basketball."

Their close bond over basketball made it all the more difficult when James Spencer died on Feb. 13, just weeks before the biggest game of his daughter's life.

Not only had Julie led her team to the state tournament, but the championship game landed on the same day as her father's funeral. The distance - 150 miles between Toledo and Yakima - made it unlikely that she could attend both.

"It has been rough," Julie told KIRO Radio last week. "But you know, good things come out of every tough situation and I'm working through it."

Hoping to find a solution, Bearcats Head Coach Henri Weeks contacted KIRO Radio's Dori Monson to put a call out for anyone willing to fly Julie to Yakima following her father's service.

"As the father of three daughters I just can't imagine that feeling, you know I'm also emotional because I'm a girls' basketball coach," Monson said.

The story was heard by Kenmore Air, a local airline that charters private planes.

"Julie is the kind of kid you want to help and root for, so we look forward to helping her out," said Todd Banks, President of Kenmore Air. "Kenmore is a family business and the values associated with that are important to us."

Sure enough, immediately following Saturday's service, Kenmore Air landed a seven-seat, Piper Chieftain Aircraft at an airstrip in Toledo.

Julie, two of her sisters, a brother, and her best friend were greeted by Kenmore Air Express chief pilot, Jeff Coleman.

"I taught high school for 12 years before I did this job, so high school athletics are pretty dear to my heart," he said. "When I heard that this was going to happen and that we were going to be able to take part in this, I kind of demanded that I was going to be involved with it."

It was pouring rain at the small airfield when Julie boarded the plane for takeoff. While the ride was rough at points, she smiled and peered out the window.

Within the hour, she was safe on the ground in Yakima.

"It was a bumpy one, but it was super fun and a great experience," she said as she exited the plane at McAllister Field and thanked the crew for the ride.

Without the flight, she said she would have missed the game in favor of her father's service.

"It would have been sad, but I would have just had to root for my team from home," she said.

Shortly after landing, Julie was greeted by hugs as she was reunited with her team.

"It's a relief right now that she's here," Coach Weeks told KIRO Radio.

The mood at the Yakima Valley SunDome was electrifying as the team walked inside. Fans for the Bearcats and their opponents, the Mark Morris Monarchs, packed the stands in anticipation of tipoff.

The Bearcats got off to an early lead as Julie Spencer scored nine points to put the team up 25-19 at the half. While the Monarchs managed a 9-3 run in the third quarter, they never got within six points.

As the clock ran out, Julie and her teammates - many in tears - rushed to center court for an embrace.

They were state champions.

"For a great kid like that, who's such a quality person, to be able to end it like that on a day like this is just something special," said Weeks, who had an emotional message for all of his players in the locker room.

"This is the game I was least nervous about," Weeks, who was close to tears, told his team. "You know why? Because of the looks in your eyes. I saw it in your eyes."

Brandi Kruse, KIRO Radio Reporter
Brandi Kruse is a reporter for KIRO Radio who is as spontaneous and adventurous in her free time as she is on the job. Brandi arrived at KIRO Radio in March 2011 and has already collected three regional Edward R. Murrow awards for her reporting.
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