Empire state: Some girls from south Oklahoma gave their community a thrill

Empire state: Some girls from south Oklahoma gave their community a thrill

Big House & big dreams: Empire girls finally make it to State Fair Arena.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 1, 2024, 6:31am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 1, 2024, 6:31am CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — One by one, or two by two, the Empire Lady Bulldogs emerged from their locker room, walked down the ancient hall of State Fair Arena and emerged into the south lair, where generations of fans have gathered to celebrate or commiserate with their hometown heroes.

Tears, not smiles, were the non-verbal communication from the Empire ladies, so you figured commiseration was in order. And there was that. Quinton beat Empire 53-38 Thursday in the Class A state quarterfinals, and losing in the Big House always opens the waterworks.

But celebration ruled the day, too.

All those crying girls were met with applause from the hundreds of gathered Empire fans. Not conciliatory claps. A legitimate ovation for a legitimate achievement. The Empire girls’ first trip to State.

“It means everything,” said Empire coach Jaicee Powers. “This group of girls … they’ve done something at Empire that hasn’t been done.”

Some of those same girls were at the Big House last year, as spectators. Like a lot of coaches, Powers takes her team to the state tournament so they get a taste of basketball in the big barn that is in its penultimate season, before the new arena next door opens.

Those Empire girls ventured to the State Fair Arena concession stand, bought snow cones and informed the vendor they would return and buy again in 2024, only this time as contestants.

No word on whether they kept that snow-cone promise, but they did indeed make it to the Big House, and it ignited much glee in the school district five miles southwest of Duncan, in Stephens County.

“Your old heart swells,” said Rodney Brooks, who now lives in nearby Marlow but played on Empire’s boys team that made state in 1972, his senior year. “You want to see those kids do well.”

Fifth-graders Cylee Rochell and Bailey Shaver were first in line Thursday morning for the floor seats that would house Empire’s cheering section. They wore spiky red wigs, red headbands and funky plastic glasses.

“We want the best seats,” Rochell said. “Because we’re the loudest and the annoyingest.”

A bunch of Empire students had spent the week making signs for State.

“We love to support our team,” Shaver said.

Sometimes these rural-school teams come to OKC, and we think they’re awed by the big city. But it’s 2024. Nobody stays on the farm all the time. Rochell has been to the Big House for rodeos; Shaver has come for the state wrestling championships.

This isn’t Dorothy in Oz. This is Hoosiers. People proud of their team.

The Empire baseball team showed up in camo gear.

“We were gonna wear our baseball jerseys, but we did camo last year at regionals and we won,” said senior Colton Johnson.

The fifth-graders made signs all week, but the baseball team planned chants.

“It’s big, because it’s the first time,” Johnson said.

School on the Hill

Empire comes from Empire City, which sprouted as an oil-boom town in the 1910s. By 1921, Empire City had a post office and soon enough 3,000 residents. But the oil went bust, and Empire City started to wither.

By 1970, the population of Empire City was 23, and the town was gone. But “the School on the Hill” remains, as Empire schools tout 550 students from pre-K through 12th grade, many of them from farming families.

Today, the non-school elements of Empire are the Fair Baptist Church a mile north of the school and the Fuller Road Store is three miles southeast, near Empire City Hall, where the volunteer fire department is housed with some impressive equipment.

And 1½ miles north of the school is the prestigious Territory Golf & Country Club, which opened in 2003, sits in Empire’s district and has brought more students to the school. Today, Empire City’s spread-out population is an estimated 700.

Empire’s athletic tradition isn’t grand. Lyndle Byford came out of Empire and played offensive tackle for Barry Switzer’s Sooner teams in the early 1980s. Byford’s daughter, Megan, was a solid basketball player at OSU, but she attended Bray-Doyle High School, on the other side of Duncan in Stephens County.

Empire’s only state championship came from cheerleading, in 1995.

Empire proudly claims the title of the state’s smallest school playing 11-man football. The Bulldogs had 30 players out for 8-man in 2022 but moved up to 11-man in 2023, with just 19 players. 

Empire superintendent Justin Smith is a 1991 graduate of the school. He played on the 1989 football team that lost to Ringling in the Class A state championship game.

Smith grew up in Empire, was a principal in Duncan for awhile, moved to Texas for eight years but returned to Empire when his daughter, K.K., was in seventh grade.

“I wanted her to be raised in Empire,” Smith said. K.K. even has some of the same teachers who were there when Justin was in school. “Not a lot of turnover. She loves it.”

K.K. Smith, now a senior, led Empire with 11 points Thursday in her final high school game.

Empire fifth-graders Cylee Rochell and Bailey Shaver were at State Fair Arena for the Lady Bulldogs’ first girls basketball state tournament appearance. (Berry Tramel/Sellout Crowd)

‘It’s a big deal’

Bill Cheatwood moved to Empire in 1977 to be the agricultural teacher. He never left. Married a former Empire basketball player, and their daughter played on an Empire team that almost made state in the 2000s.

“We should have won it,” that daughter, Ryan Dymond said. “We thought we had it.”

Her mother, Fonda Cheatwood, called it “devastating.”

For most schools, that’s the thing about basketball. Just as the Final Four is the holy grail of college hoops, making it to the Big House is the big goal for Oklahoma’s small schools. A gold ball is nice, but playing in State Fair Arena is the cherished reward.

And a week ago, in Madill, Empire beat Tushka 43-34 to punch its state tournament ticket.

“It was awesome,” said Cheatwood, not exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to use the word awesome. “The excitement was great. The school is the true center point of our community. We don’t have a town. Everything that happens there is around the school.”

So in walked the Empire girls on Thursday, taking seats not in the aging arena but on the floor bleachers reserved for competing teams. Soon enough, Empire was on the court, against Quinton, a school some 30 miles northeast of McAlester.

Empire and Quinton played a tight game — 16 lead changes, seven ties — and Empire trailed just 36-35 through three quarters. But Quinton dominated the fourth quarter.

With less than a minute left and hope all gone, Powers began taking her starters out of the game and gave them hugs, another Big House staple.

Then came the long walk to the locker room, for one last time together as a team, before they went back into the massive rodeo ramp, the traditional gathering place of the state tournament, the place of tears and cheers, where no Empire girls team had gone before.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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