By Billy Watkins
It is more than a picture.
It is art, worthy of hanging in a fancy museum for men, women and children to stare at, to draw their own conclusions about what was being shouted by the boisterous teenage boys, and what was going through the mind of the straight-faced, pig-tailed teenage girl who stood before them.
Yes, our own Robert “Bob” Smith snapped a classic photograph near the end of Jackson Prep’s 36-32 victory over MRA last Friday at Prep in the MAIS 5A state semifinals.
Prep led 32-31 with 55 seconds remaining when 18-year-old senior Olivia Sasser, daughter of Billy and Dana Sasser, went to inbound the ball in front of the MRA student section. As expected, those in the first few rows leaned forward and let her have it vocally, many of them smiling as they did so.
When the photo was posted on Facebook, a stream of comments appeared below it. Many simply congratulated Smith for his wonderful work,. But the thread soon turned into a discussion of whether it was proper for a bunch of boys to be screaming at a girl in that situation, or any situation.
One woman said the boys “invaded her space.” A couple others said the boys’ parents needed to give them a good talking to about sportsmanship. Another wrote: “NOT cool!!!!!!”
Thank goodness, a few posters pointed out that this was perfectly normal behavior during the heat of competition. Fans razzing players is part of sports — as long as the comments are not inappropriate.
But what did Olivia Sasser think about those boys raising their voices at her?
Before we get to that, I’d like for you to know a few things about Olivia, who lives with her family in Harrisville, a small community in northwest Simpson County.
She is a certified scuba diver.
“I love it,” Sasser said in a phone interview. “I did my first night dive three years ago (in the Bahamas), and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s another world down there in the ocean, so peaceful and calm.”
She enjoys zipping around on her jet ski, riding horses and going to the beach.
“Olivia loves just about anything that has to do with the outdoors — except hunting and fishing,” Dana says. “She loves animals, so she doesn’t like to shoot them. And she would fish, but it would only be to show you that she could out fish you.”
Which brings us to this: She is extremely competitive.
“Her two older brothers have a lot to do with that,” Dana says.
Spencer and Noah Sasser were outstanding offensive linemen on the Jackson Prep football team. Both were selected to play in the MAIS All-Star game.
They were always protective of little sister, even making sure she was handy with a pistol.
But they also, as big brothers do, used to playfully rough her up.
“They have made me who I am today,” Olivia says with a laugh. “Both are third-degree blackbelts in karate, and they used to get me in choke holds and all kinds of stuff. But I’d put ’em on the ground my share of the time. I’m not losing! We’d go at it until our parents would come in and say, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ ”
Billy and Dana were always confident Olivia would hold her own. “Did you notice her bicep in the picture?” Dana asks.
Prep coach Michael McAnally saw Olivia’s competitive drive when she was in eighth grade.
“We had moved her up to the ninth grade team,” McAnally recalls, “and we practiced at different times than the varsity, of course. So I told the junior high girls that anyone who wanted to practice with the high school were welcome to do so.”
Olivia was the only one to accept the invitation. She wound up starting 11 games as an eighth-grader, including the final eight, and had three double-doubles (double figures in points and rebounds.)
“She’s a five-year starter — the only one I’ve ever had,” McAnally says. “Olivia is quiet. She’s not a vocal leader. But she leads by example. She does so many things for us.”
Standing 5-foot-6, she led the team in rebounding her ninth-grade year.
“Gritty,” McAnally says. “That’s the word I would use to describe her. She’s not super fast but she’s tough and she has a knack for finding the ball.”
Entering Tuesday night’s game at Bowling Green (La.) in the first round of the MAIS Overall Tournament, Sasser leads the team in steals (91) and rebounds (5.5) and ranks second in scoring (11.0). The photo was taken in her 125th varsity start.
She also excels at soccer and softball, which she happily reminds her brothers.
“I tell them, ‘Y’all were invited to play in one all-star game. I was invited to three,’ ” she laughs.
She has drawn interest from four-year colleges and community colleges in all three sports. She already knows where she’s going and will announce it sometime after basketball season.
“I give all the credit to God. Every bit of it,” Olivia says. “I have been truly blessed.”
So what about the picture?
What does she remember about that moment?
“It was a tight game,” she says, “and I remember walking over to inbound the ball. I sorta expected (the MRA students) to start yelling at me,. I was right there in front of them. And it’s a rivalry, us and MRA. I’ve been dealing with situations like that since the eighth grade.
“Once the referee handed me the ball, I just blocked all that out. I heard noise but I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and it really didn’t matter. I had a job to do for my team, and that’s all I cared about. I wanted to inbound the ball safely and successfully.”
Which she did. She also made three free throws in the final seconds to ice the win and push Prep’s record to 23-3.
“To be honest, I’d like to thank them for the noise,” she says. “That really made me want to beat them and send them home with nothing.”
Olivia doesn’t understand why so much was made of the boys yelling at her.
“All I thought when I saw the picture was, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool. Mr. Bob sure took a good one.’ That’s all that came to mind and I really haven ’t thought much else about it. It’s basketball. It’s sports. Fans are going to yell at you.”
Her mom is more to the point. “Those boys did nothing wrong, and I don’t want them or MRA to be criticized about it,” Dana says. “Trust me, anything those boys said to her — and Olivia didn’t hear anything out of the way — she could handle it. Her brothers have made sure of that.”
McAnally says the photo “shows the pageantry and passion of high school sports.”
“When I saw it, it reminded me of the ‘Cameron Crazies’ at Duke who are always getting on opposing players,” McAnally says. “It was just kids having fun.
“I did read some of the comments, and one person said that if it had been a boy being yelled at, nobody would’ve thought anything about it. Well, I’ve coached boys and girls and I’ve been doing this for a while. I can tell you right now, girls are tough. They can take it.
“That picture of Olivia was one of poise and strength and mental toughness.”
Olivia wants a copy to frame.
“I want to show it to my kids one day,” she says. “I want them to know that the way you win a game is to claim your silence. The victory is much sweeter when you say nothing and let your actions do the talking.”