Entering 2020, head coach Chris Strathman has the McPherson High School girls basketball team in a little different position than it found itself in entering 2019. For one, Strathman is back with the team full time.
While Strathman has faced several familiar opponents and challenges at the helm of McPherson girls basketball over the past 15 years, an unfamiliar one threw a wrench into the start of the 2018-2019 season — as Strathman was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2018.
Following some health issues that persisted over the summer and into the start of the school year, Strathman was scheduled for a colonoscopy the day before Thanksgiving at McPherson Memorial Hospital. During that procedure, doctors identified a spot on his colon they were quite certain was cancer (eventually confirmed to be stage two colon cancer). A surgery was then scheduled for Nov. 29 — the day before the first game of the basketball season.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Strathman informed his team he would have an extended absence from the sidelines to start the season. Prior to that, Strathman had never spent any extended time away from the team in his 25 years with the program (outside of a few days for the birth of he and his wife's first child when he was an assistant).
Leaving the team in the charge of his assistant coaches and senior leaders, he know it would be in good hands — as surgery and the ensuing recovery forced Strathman to be extremely hands-off.
"I really was not with the team at all for those first weeks of games," Strathman said. "It was very tough, but fortunately we had three assistant coaches who have been with me since 2012, so we had continuity in the locker room; that helped a lot."
During that span, McPherson went 5-1 overall. Meanwhile, Strathman awaited his post-surgery results to see if he would fair as well as his team.
Surgery led to the removal of five to six inches of Strahman's colon, which were sent for tests. While that surgery was performed at the end of November, Strathman didn't meet with his oncologist again until the final day of 2018 — when he got the all clear to return to coaching, with the tests looking good and showing no need for chemotherapy/radiation treatment.
"That was a little bit nerve-wracking when it was taking so long, but still that was awesome news," Strathman said.
As much as he tried to stay away during recovery, Strathman would still watch games online or listen to them on the radio. In a few instances, he even helped with scouting film.
Eventually, Strathman made his way back to the gym — as a spectator — the last home game before Christmas, which was McPherson's Wall of Fame night when the 2018 state championship banner was hung and former McPherson (and current OU) standout Taylor Robertson was honored.
On top of that, Wall of Fame night coincided with a colon cancer awareness night put on by the McPherson community and high school, another reason Strathman wanted to be there — given the support he had received from his players, fellow coaches and several community members.
Following Christmas, getting the all clear from his oncologist, Strathman rejoined his team to lead the Bullpups through the second half of the season on the way to a fourth-place finish in Class 5A. It was business as usual for McPherson girls basketball (which has claimed three state titles under the leadership of Strathman), and its head coach.
"The motivation to get back was just, that's where I want to be. I love coaching, I love teaching and getting back to the daily grind of doing those two things, being with the girls and the other coaches," Strathman said. "It just made me feel a lot better about everything, being back in the swing of things."
Check-ups will be normal for Strathman moving forward, but his one year follow-up in September gave him another all clear — which has him very encouraged.
Support from the community, his team and the staff at McPherson Memorial Hospital was key in getting Strathman back on the sidelines. While he said his battle with cancer didn't necessarily change his coaching philosophy or motivations, it did give him additional perspective with which he can relate to his players.
"The lessons were to not take things for granted. We've had a few kids get injured this year that have lost a lot of time or are now going to lose out on the rest of their season; it's a hard lesson," Strathman said. "I kind of learned that myself last year. Just take advantage of those days that you're blessed with and make the most of them."
At the break, the McPherson girls basketball team is 5-0 in Strathman's first full season back with the program. The team will return to action Jan. 3 against Dodge City.