Heading into their senior seasons, three Yellow Jackets were already looking ahead to their athletic futures beyond the court, diamond and pitch they will compete on for one final successful push in a Denison uniform.
From the moment they stepped on campus, they have been key contributors in their respective sports and as they signed their letters of intent it was a reflection upon their accomplishments as well as what the final year will bring.
Taryn Gaines signed to play basketball for Southeastern Oklahoma State, Luke Kirkbride signed to play baseball for Northern Oklahoma College and Christina Hernandez signed to play soccer for Texas A&M-Commerce.
Gaines has been a four-year starter for the Lady Jackets during some of the program’s greatest moments including three straight playoff appearances, the first that ended an 11-year postseason drought, at least 21 wins each year plus a district title and a school record 31 wins and a trip to the region quarterfinals in 2017-18.
Denison went 21-12 last year and will try to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, something the program has not done.
“Coach Been talks about how I started off with winning seasons and I know how that feels and what to expect,” Gaines said. “I wasn’t the top scorer before but now I am because my team needs me to. I’ve been pushing and pushing and believed in myself to be at the next level.”
She was a first-team all-district pick as a junior after averaging eight points, 7.2 rebounds. 1.8 steals and assists and 1.7 blocks.
As a sophomore, Gaines averaged five points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a second-team all-district selection.
Gaines was the district Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, averaging 4.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.
She has also been a selected multiple times as an all-district performer in volleyball.
Southeastern Oklahoma State went 14-13 last season and 12-10 in Great American Conference play with a first-round loss in the GAC Tournament. The program continues to add local talent — the current roster includes Bells’ Katie Branam, Pottsboro’s Haiden Williams, Whitesboro’s Casey Monk, Melissa’s Katie Webb, Gainesville’s Chandler Kemp — and Collinsville’s Carrie Johnson is a part of the Storm’s incoming class.
“I feel like it’s close to home and my support system,” Gaines said. “I know how they play and how to adjust my game to what they’re doing.”
Kirkbride enters his senior season coming off a first-team all-district campaign that saw Denison go 15-17 but finish third in 10-5A for a third straight playoff appearance, the most for the program since four straight trips from 1995-98.
During his sophomore year Kirkbride contributed to Denison’s best season in 25 years as the Jackets went 21-15 — the most wins since 1998 — and made the region quarterfinals. It was the first time since 2000 the program won a playoff game.
As a freshman he was a second-team all-district utility selection as the Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“These past years we’ve been blessed with talent,” he said. “It’s heart and willing to work hard and if we start with that we can go far.”
Kirkbride will also be trying to qualify for the state powerlifting meet for the third straight year.
Northern Oklahoma College is the defending National Junior College Athletic Association Division II champion after finishing 42-18 this past spring for the program’s first title. It was the third time in the last six years and fourth overall the Jets made the D-II World Series, including a third-place finish in 2018 with a 48-16 record.
“Coach Bo worked his tail off to get my name out there. Coach Bo is the reason I’m playing college baseball,” said Kirkbride, who picked NOC over Murray State. “The facilities are very good — indoor for baseball, turf, a $4.5 million stadium. They are the defending champions. Who doesn’t want to go there? My goal is to go Division I and this is my best option.”
Hernandez was a first-team all-district selection for the second straight season and finished her junior year with 28 goals and 10 assists as Denison went 12-10-1 and 2-7-1 in District 10-5A. It was the program’s second-most victories in a season, behind 13 in 2008, and the Lady Jackets placed fifth in the district standings, one spot out of the playoffs.
“I’m excited to show out,” she said. “Our graduating class is a big class so it’s now or never if we’re planning on getting it done.”
As a sophomore Hernandez scored 17 goals but her prowess isn’t something she honed over years of practice.
“I’m not one of those people who has been playing since they were four years old,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t start until seventh grade. Ever since then I fell in love with it.”
She also is a two-time region cross-country qualifier and part of the 400, 800 and 1,600 relay teams that qualified for regionals this past spring. The 400 and 800 relays had school-record times, breaking marks from 1999 and 1983, respectively.
A&M-Commerce went 10-8-1 overall this past season and 7-6 in the Lone Star Conference to place seventh in the standings before losing in the quarterfinals of the LSC Tournament. The program hasn’t had a losing season since 2012 and won at least 10 games in all but one season since then. The Lions have made the NCAA Division II Tournament eight times, the last coming in 2016 when they made the Sweet 16. That was also their last conference title. Former Austin College head coach Paul Burns is the associated head coach.
“I know I feel like I can show that I’m able to contribute right away, hopefully at least,” said Hernandez, who picked A&M-Commerce over Angelo State. “When I went and played with the girls I liked the fit with what they were doing.”