The Mount's Aryna Taylor Perseveres With Perspective
Ready to break the press, Aryna Taylor grabbed the baseline out of bounds pass. After blasting straight down the court unimpeded, the 7th grader jumped off her right foot, laid the ball on the back board, and watched it go through the hoop. Perfect. Her best layup of this AAU tournament in Chicago.
When she looked at the crowd, she saw her teammates and family just staring at her and no one cheered.
All You Need is Chalk, Concrete and YouTube
Aryna Taylor grew up in Ashland, Va. with her mom, Tina Crutchfield, and her brother, Ar’ron Crutchfield. Her mom didn’t play basketball and her brother played sports here and there.
Basketball belonged to her.
Taylor often played on her backyard hoop in a concrete slab with her brother and his friends -- the source of her competitive edge.
As a kid, she watched SportsCenter as well as WNBA, NBA, and college basketball games. Though always on the smaller side, she hit a major growth spurt around 3rd grade which helped her game substantially.
“When she was old enough to play little league basketball it was right up her alley,” said her mom. “She got to play with boys, where she felt it would be competitive.”
Once she grew, she started to realize that she was pretty good. In middle school, she averaged around 12 to 15 points per game, but she always had a problem making threes.
She knew that if she could get better, she could push her average to 25 points per game. When she told her mom she wanted to start improving her game all around, mom went all in.
Taylor’s mom pushed her to get better every day. And she did some research of her own to help Aryna.
“My mom and YouTube are like best friends, especially then,” said Aryna.
Her mom found many ladder-footwork drills on YouTube. Armed with some chalk, she headed to that backyard concrete slab and created her homemade ladders.
“Everyday my mom would literally make me go out there and I would hate it and I would literally pray for rain often to wash the ladder away because I did not like doing them,” she stated.
“What motivated me to help her get better ... She wanted it,” said Taylor’s mom. “She wanted to get better, and I watched her do just that, so whatever we could do at home . . . I was all for it.”
Taylor started playing AAU in middle school and working with a trainer. He put her through hard and tiring workouts. Many hard and tiring workouts. Day in and day out, hard and tiring workouts.
She could only take so much. She hit the point of exhaustion.
Yet she kept coming back.
And she kept improving.
It all clicked for her the moment during a tight game when she banked a deep corner three point shot. Taylor wasn’t expecting to make it, but the shot went in and that’s when she realized: “There’s the one.”
Then came that big AAU tournament in Chicago. Seeing college coaches and recruiters in the stands, Taylor began thinking about the possibility of playing at that level.
And that possibility had to increase after she made the aforementioned prefect layup.
But the crowd went silent. Why?
Well, her mom knew why.
“When she shot the ball and scored in the wrong basket, my first thoughts were ‘they will not get this girl back on any court for the rest of this tournament to play any more games."
After her realization, Taylor had to check out and sit by herself in order to process her embarrassment and emotions. Even though it only happened in the first half and wasn’t a result altering play, it strained her emotions considerably.
Painting the College Picture
Taylor turned into a basketball fanatic and insisted upon going to her trainer more and more to try to move past it. She wanted to prove to all of those college coaches watching that that they did not see the real Aryna Taylor. And she wanted to prove to those coaches, or any college coach, that she deserved a scholarship.
But she also had another motivation for that scholarship. She understood the challenges her mom faced raising children as a single parent. She wanted to make sure her mom didn’t have to pay for college.
The varsity head coach of her high school provided a great first step. He attended some of her middle school games and promised her a spot on the team the following season as a mere freshman.
Wow. Fantastic. So next step, train hard, and then impress the heck out of those college coaches.
And train hard she did.
Now next step . .
Nope, no next step. She tore her ACL that summer.
Devastating, though not entirely.
“Coming back from my first ACL, I knew I was like ‘Ok like, I don’t mind missing high school because . . . I had AAU to follow-up right after,” said Taylor.
She did. And she played well. Very well. As she did her sophomore and junior years on varsity. So well that she scored a whopping 875 points in just those two seasons.
Colleges started to show some interest. Well, a little bit of interest.
Some pokes here and there. Then some texts, Then some calls.
And then - an official D1 scholarship offer from Longwood University.
She beamed with excitement. She did it. All her hard work had been validated. This warranted a trip to Longwood to clean out the entire bookstore.
But then more offers came from places like Boston College, Jacksonville, and Navy.
Well, the lizards in Jacksonville and the militaristic lifestyle at Navy didn’t quite appeal to her.
So she opted for: Mount St. Marys.
When visiting, Taylor felt in good hands. She loved the beauty of the campus and being out of state provided an attractive challenge.
Coming off three straight losing seasons, Mount St. Mary’s had recently hired a new head coach, Maria Marchesano, in 2017. Taylor knew that Mount St. Mary’s hadn’t been a powerhouse program, but she knew that she wanted to be a part of the promising future for the team. A big part. She very much wanted to be a major contributor for the Mountaineers.
And she planned to use her last year in high school to get ready.
On the very first day of senior year, Taylor had that plan in action, playing hard with her AAU friends.
And she tore her other ACL.
This forced Taylor to sit out the entire season. But luckily, Mount St. Mary's still wanted her.
Jump to October 2017 and the preseason practices at Mount St. Mary's. Unbelievably, Taylor suffered her third ACL tear.
Freshman year - gone. The goal of contributing, being a big part of the team - gone.
Finally the next season came. And so did scar tissue.
Necessary clean up and rehabilitation precautions sidelined her for a second consecutive year.
Sophomore season - gone. The goal of contributing, being a big part of the team - gone, again.
“So, by the time I end up actually fully playing my first full year of basketball, I was already a junior at Mount, but it was my freshman year on the court,” said Taylor.
“Obviously my goal was to make it to college basketball and once I made it, I made it,” reflected Taylor. “I always knew I could be a big part of my team if I’m on the court, working hard because the way I work hard and I put in a lot of time into what I do and I knew that I could be a big asset.”
“She never wanted to let us down, and we always made it very clear how much we needed her presence on the court,” said teammate Kendall Bresee.
Taylor knew she was a part of something bigger than herself and that that knowledge provided her with the incentive to keep grinding through the rigorous days of injury rehabilitation yet again.
“Once the injuries kept coming, I’m just like ‘Okay, like just have to deal with it. Go through rehab. Restart and get back to where I was beforehand’,” she said. “Because, like I said, I knew of an importance I could be for a team."
The 2019-2020 season, Taylor's third at Mount, she came all the way back and competed in all 31 games.
But once again her season got cut short. This time by a worldwide pandemic. It seemed Taylor’s road to a college basketball career was beset by obstacles from all points.
In 2020-2021, she became a regular in the starting lineup. And after years of struggling behind the 3 point line, she hit 50 three pointers - tying for most on the team. Her impressive play landed her on the All-NEC 3rd team and also helped the Mountaineers earn a spot in the NEC Tournament finals.
Lose and they go home. Win and Mount St. Mary’s dances in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 26 years.
Dance they did.
And a big part of "they" was Aryna Taylor who was named to the NEC's All-Tournament team.
Yet Another Dagger
On to 2021-2022. Taylor became an even greater offensive weapon for Mount St. Mary’s. She had an unquestionably solid season. And again helped the team get to the NEC Tournament semifinals.
And then she tore her Achilles tendon.
As soon as she saw her foot, she knew it was her Achilles and immediately thought of Kevin Durant and the yearlong healing process.
“I will never forget our playoff game against Wagner, it was the type of pain that even though it didn’t happen to you, you can physically feel,” said Bresee. “The game was almost over when Nay got hurt and me and Keeks just looked at each other and tried not to cry.”
Rest of post-season - gone. The goal of contributing, being a big part of the team - gone, yet again.
Mount St. Mary’s went on to win another NEC tournament and received another ticket to the Big Dance. But no dancing for Aryna. Although clearly no stranger to major injuries, this one proved even more challenging to rehabilitate.
“With my Achilles, it was a lot harder for me because I’ve had that time of not being injured,” said Taylor. “So, I knew what it felt like to not be injured and then to… boom, now I’m injured, now I have to get surgery again.”
“I tried supporting Aryna by reminding her, she was going to get through this just like before and we were going to do it one day at a time and, before you know it, you’ve made it a week, you’ve made it a month and so on,” said her mom.
She added, “I can tell you Aryna has had a very good support team around her during her injuries. As a mom, that gave me a lot of comfort and a peace of mind.”
Taylor needed to try to dig deep to find the fortitude to endure yet another grueling rehabilitation. She needed to return to her mindset of “just deal with it”.
That's what she did with the first injury, the second injury, the third injury, the pandemic and that not-so-perfect layup.
But to really get through this she needed something else.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
Kendall Bresee, who is Taylor's roommate as well as teammate, hails from Frederick, Md., not too far from Mount St. Mary’s. The Bresee family would often open their home to their daughter’s teammates and would have the girls over for dinner to hang out or to watch basketball games as if they were a part of the family.
In 2021, the "family" got some bad news: Kendall's younger sister, Ella, had cancer.
“It was definitely hard on all of us, definitely me because, you know, Ken and I are pretty close,” said Taylor. “It was really hard to have to see her go through that pain and suffering and then having to see Ella go through all of that physically when we would go over to the house to see her on days when she didn’t have chemo or radiation.”
This adversity brought the roommates even closer.
It also brought Aryna something that helped with that Achilles - perspective. Life will bring challenges. And other people might have some bigger than yours. But all you can do for yourself and others is all you can do.
“She didn’t miss much for Ella,” said Bresee of Taylor. “End of radiation she was there, when she got home from St. Jude she was there, both brain surgeries Ella had she was there."
“Every day was always a hard day,” said Taylor. “Ella would have scans on certain days, so we knew, whether the results would be good or bad, we knew results were coming in after practice. So, it’s just like a lot of built-up anxiety from the start of practice all the way through.”
Throughout these difficult days, the girls leaned on each other for support. On bad days, they tried to do something together to try and lighten the mood and maybe even laugh.
“She is the type of friend who is so loyal and loves so hard and would literally do anything for you,” said Bresee. “Nay has always been really good at the little things, she was the best friend I could’ve asked for through college. . . .This past year would’ve been impossible without Nay, and I’m forever grateful for her.”
Resolution in Ascendence
“I’ll never forget a few months after our season ended last year we are talking and I asked her how she was feeling about trying to come back for the upcoming season being her sixth year, having a countless number of injuries that many see as career ending . . .,” said Bresee. “She gave me this look like I was speaking a different language, she said ‘Kendall do you really think I’m ending my career 0 of 8 from the three’ and just laughed.”
Taylor did in fact come back - strong. She even re-cracked the starting lineup. And on Senior Night she scored a season high 19 points, going 5 for 8 from 3 point range.
“I don’t think I ever had a moment where I knew that I wanted to walk away,” she said.
Mental toughness seems to be one of Taylor’s strongest skillsets throughout her significant injury history. While no sane person would wish for the painful and frustrating injuries Taylor endured, she states that the experience of those injuries and rehabilitation provided her with the single minded focus required to overcome the roadblocks fate placed in her path.
Maybe those lost seasons of basketball early in her career no longer seem like the end of the world. The wrong way bucket, that has stuck with her throughout her playing career, was the beginning of her evolution in perseverance and perspective.
“She is a player that always is trying to better herself,” said Bresee with an emphasis on always.
Taylor says that her best piece of advice for athletes facing similar challenges is:
“Some people have it and some people don’t, unfortunately. Some people don’t want to work hard. If you don’t work hard, then you don’t get the results that you wish to. But then there’s some people that do have it and do work hard and they put their best foot forward… Coming back from injury, just making sure you keep your head down and just work hard for things that you want and what you want to achieve.”
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