CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Coming out of the Thanksgiving break, the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi women's basketball team has plenty to be thankful for two weeks into the season. The Islanders moved to 2-2 on the year with a 33-point victory over Montana Tech last Wednesday, the first of a four-game homestand.
Head coach Royce Chadwick and the Islanders have already made history in the opening four games of the year with three freshmen in the starting lineup at the earliest point in a season ever.
One of those starting freshmen is guard Emma Young. The Nicholasville, Kentucky, native is averaging seven points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and one steal in 23.3 minutes per game. Since arriving on the Island during the summer semester, the 5-foot-10 guard has easily made the transition to the collegiate game with her work ethic and all-around game.
However, behind the unwavering smile and auburn hair, Young's short life has been marred by trial and tragedy, matched only by her resiliency and ability to overcome adversity.
Growing up in Kentucky, Young was constantly on the move, falling under the guardianship of her mother, grandparents and extended relatives. Avoiding the drugs and abuse that were rampant in her childhood homes, Young rebelled against her guardians, often staying out multiple nights in a row.
"I had to get away from those places," Young said. "The effects and objects of drug abuse were all around me. I spent so many nights away from home that whoever was in charge of me, just started to let me get away with everything, because I would mess up their normal stuff when I was around."
Constant change never allowed Young to have a place to call home, but a move to East Jessamine High School, prior to her freshman year, set up a fateful encounter that would turn a rebellious teenager into a record-setting player for the Jaguars.
After attending several conditioning practices and open gyms with the assistant coaches, Young learned that she would be on the move again. Her new guardians struggled with substance abuse and provided an extremely negative environment for a teenager to grow. Distraught, she had to call Jaguars head coach Jacqueline Coleman to inform her about the change.
"I had no other option, but to leave East Jessamine," Young said. "I called Jacqueline and told her that I didn't have anywhere else to go. She wanted to meet with me, which was pretty funny, because I didn't know who she was. The only time I had met her before was to pick up a summer schedule."
The meeting proved to be life changing for the high school freshman. Coleman sensed that Young, who had been surrounded by substance abuse and had regularly fallen behind in school, needed a massive change of pace. Coleman, along with her husband Chris O'Bryan, the boys' coach at EJHS, made the decision to take Young into their home as one of their own.
"Emma came to us at a pivotal point in her life," Coleman recalled. "I immediately recognized that she was the type of kid who was a bad decision or two away from being another dropout statistic. All the red flags were there - she had a history of bouncing from house to house; not attending school regularly; falling behind, academically.
"But beyond her unpolished surface, I also saw something special in Emma. I believed, under the right circumstances, she had the potential to be great. For all her shortcomings as a 14-year old, Emma was tough, resilient, and charismatic. She had the ability to light up a room and people were naturally drawn to her."
A different setting was nothing new for Young, but living with Coleman brought with it a new set of rules and responsibilities, serving as the older sister to the couple's sons Will and Nate.
"I was in an environment with rules for the first time in my life," Young remembered. "I was used to having people just say yes to what I wanted. It's funny. They told me no when I asked to leave the house for the first time, and my first thought was to move out."Coleman and O'Bryan, who were originally in the first stages of the adoption process, instilled a structure that was initially met with resentment from Young. The trio spent hours at the dining room table completing homework or finishing supper.
"I joke that, for the first two years, one of us wasn't going to live to see her graduate high school," Coleman added. "I just wasn't sure which one of us wouldn't make it. She was a raw teenager and a raw athlete. She lacked discipline, academic and athletic skills, and had lived most of her life without boundaries.
"Then, all of a sudden, she is living with her coach, who is also the mother figure in the home, her new guardians were teachers and basketball coaches in her school, and friends and co-workers with all of her teachers."
Looking back on the early days, Young is thankful for the attention that her new family focused on her.
"Jacqueline and Chris wanted to know where I was at all times," Young said. "I had never been in an environment where someone cared so much. I had never had someone in my life who was worried about my well-being."
The realization that Coleman and O'Bryan's high expectations came from a place of love started to pay dividends. Young began focusing on her education and set a goal for herself – to become the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and to do so with honors.
"I spent her freshman year genuinely wondering if she could graduate high school," Coleman continued. "That is Emma in a nutshell. Chris and I are often credited for Emma's success, but the truth is, Emma would not be where she is if she hadn't made the decision that she wanted a better life. She did the hard work of making it happen."
Through all of the adjustments at home, Young always had basketball as her release. As a latecomer to the game, Young did not have very high expectations to start high school, after starting to play in her seventh-grade year.
"Basketball was kind of like my personal getaway," Young continued. "It kept me out of a lot of trouble. With all the influences I had growing up, I could have chosen to follow a negative lifestyle that would not have allowed me to be successful.
"Basketball was something I cared about, and I put a lot of effort into it. In my life, I felt like that was the only thing that would never forsake me. It challenged me to grow, not only on the court, but off it as well. It was probably the best thing to ever happen to me."
Despite moving in with her head coach, it was evident that Young needed a lot of work to grow in order to be effective on the court. What Young lacked in basketball IQ, she more than made up with tenacity and drive.
"Every coach wanted her on their team and no player wanted to go against her - that speaks to her presence on the court," Coleman said. "However, as her coach, I had to figure out how to harness that grit, develop her, fundamentally, and teach her discipline and control. We spent many, many evenings butting heads on the court.
"It's something that my former players still joke about. She was tough, but I was more hardheaded than her - determined not to give her an inch. It was no secret - I expected more out of her than anyone ever had before, I was harder on her than I'd been on any player I'd ever coached; and I made no apologies for that. Her game developed in tandem with her personal and academic growth."
Young recalled how many times she won those battles between coach and player."At first, I was so rude to her," Young added. "There were so many days where I was running all of practice that I lost count. I had one day where I wouldn't stop talking, and she kept making me run stairs."
The constant discipline at home and on the court gave rise to a talented young basketball player, but no one could have guessed that the rebellious 14-year old would go on to rewrite the record books at East Jessamine High School.
In four seasons with the Jaguars, Young set the school record for points in a career with 2,089 to become the first boy or girl in program history to cross the 2,000-point threshold. As a senior, she averaged a double-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game to earn 12th Region MVP honors and a spot in the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star game.
Her on-court achievements started to gain attention from college coaches. After receiving offers to several Division I institutions, Young went out for one final AAU tournament before her senior season at EJHS.
By chance, Islanders associate head coach Roxanne White had traveled to an old rec center to watch her friend John McGraw coach his travel team, Team Slink, and a gritty guard with auburn hair caught her eye.
"The very first time I watched Emma play basketball, she intrigued me with her fiery attitude and competitive spirit," White recalled. "She guarded the ball doggedly and was firing great pass after great pass to her teammates. She was so excited for her teammates when they scored and had so much energy for the game she loved. That's when I knew this small town Kentucky girl had to come to Corpus."
Young made her official visit, but wanted to consider the offer before verbally committing. A visit from White the ensuing week all but sealed the deal that Young would play her collegiate ball wearing the Blue and Green.
The decision has proven fruitful for the Kentucky native. Young has seen improvement in each of her four games, including a career-high 10 points and six boards against Montana Tech. Though early in her career at the Island University, Young is ready for any challenge put in her path.
"My role is going to be different here than what it was back home," Young said. "I want to bring and use my intensity in whatever way coach needs me. My goal is to help this team do well and win. I want to play so hard that it makes it difficult for coach to take me off the court."
Chadwick has recognized that Young is ahead of the curve for freshmen in the game today.
"She understands what it takes to play at this level," Chadwick said. "She is relentless, tenacious and fearless. Nothing will be able to hold her down. She is always trying to get better and make her teammates better."
Not only did the Islanders gain a guard for the future, but they stands gained a loud voice in the stands.
"I am grateful to have had a front row seat to watch her evolve as a young woman and as a basketball player," Coleman added. "Not many people have the opportunity to experience a story like this - it is not something I take for granted. This season will be very different for me. I resigned from coaching so I could follow Emma's college basketball career."
No one could have imagined how the decision of two strangers to welcome an unruly teenager into their home would benefit a player, a family and a university. Emma Young's experience and bond with Jacqueline Coleman will continue to shape her identity as a player and a person for years to come.