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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan – Sarah Richardson still remembers that day 15 years ago, sitting on the bench feeling distraught.

It was her maiden basketball tournament on Okinawa, in her first year coaching hoops at Robert D. Edgren High School.

She thought all Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Pacific would be equally competitive, with the same number of games and the same caliber players.

The lopsided score on the scoreboard told a different story.

“That was a big eye opener,” Richardson recalled. “That’s when I realized that Edgren is in a situation that prevents it from accomplishing as much as it could because of lack of games.”

Whereas teams on the Kanto Plain and Okinawa had a full league schedule with games against each other and nearby international schools, Edgren, in far-flung northern Japan, played only weekends.

That was a distinct disadvantage, Richardson said. “You can practice until you’re purple, but the kids need experience. They need the games under their belt to really be competitive.”

From that low point, Richardson stuck with it and led the Eagles to the Far East Class AA Tournament championship finals in 2000 and 2002. The latter defeat was a memorable double-overtime loss to Kubasaki.

Underdog Edgren finally was near the top, an edge gained through hard work and timing.

During those years, Richardson was fortunate enough to coach a group of hard-working athletes from seventh grade through high school, including Yevonne Sears.

In 2000, the Eagles’ senior shooting guard broke a 17-year-old Pacific and Far East tournament game scoring record, getting 41 points against Yokota during the Far East Class AA Tournament on Edgren’s home court.

A Far East championship has eluded Richardson so far, but it’s not the number in the win-loss column that matters to her.

“I tell my kids, of course I want to win,” she said. “But even if you lose and you can step off that court and say you gave 110 percent, to me it’s a winner.”

It was a lesson Richardson learned on the court as a player at Mount Olive College in North Carolina. She attended Mount Olive on a full scholarship in 1978 and 1979 before transferring to Atlantic Christian College, to test the waters at a larger school.

The 1979 Mount Olive team lost in double overtime to South Carolina State in the AIAW Division II title game.

“We were just a little school,” she said. “We walked into the gym, it was wall-to-wall people. To look at our coach, to look at his face, he had no fear. If he had no fear, we couldn’t have fear. He taught us to rise above that crowd and use the crowd to our advantage.”

And to play with heart. Richardson, who stands 5-foot-8, scored 42 points in that game.

“Because you lose a game doesn’t mean you didn’t play well or represent your school,” she said. “It just means we didn’t go down without a fight.”

Richardson is thinking a lot about those bygone days lately. She recently found out she’ll be inducted into Mount Olive’s athletic hall of fame. The induction ceremony is Nov. 17. She’ll have to give a speech, she says with a nervous laugh.

“It’s overwhelming but it’s just such an honor,” she said. “I’m just thrilled that something I did many years ago is appreciated and looked upon as something big.”

She’s most looking forward to seeing her coaches, Larry Dean from Mount Olive, and going further back, Barbara Smith Herring, who convinced Richardson to play basketball at Mount Olive Junior High School, where her basketball career began.

Richardson’s love for the game hasn’t wavered. In addition to basketball, she coaches girls’ volleyball and soccer for Edgren, and plans to stick with it. She also teaches health education at Edgren’s middle school.

She likes basketball “because it’s so physical,” she said. More than anything, she likes the challenge of teaching a group of kids about a sport “from the ground up and seeing the final product. That’s what it’s all about.”

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