In the Cheap Seats
Bobby "Butch" Burney | News-Telegram Sports Editor

April 19, 2004 -- Not long after I started working for the Winnsboro News in the summer of 1995, I went down to the high school gym to meet the coaches and introduce myself.

Having lived and worked in East Texas, I knew of the legacy and reputation of Winnsboro as a girls basketball hotbed. I didn't know the hotbed was going to get hotter in the coming years, thanks to one girl in particular.

When I walked in the gym, there was a pickup game going on with seven or eight high school guys and one junior high girl. It didn't take long for Winnsboro coach Buddy Hawkins to point out that girl. Of course, it was Stacy Stephens.

In the summer of her seventh-grade year, Stacy was tall, probably about 5-10 on her way to being 6-1. If she would have been eligible, she would have started on the Winnsboro varsity as a seventh-grader.

Buddy told me then that when she was a freshman, she'd be the best post player in the region and by the time she was a senior she'd be one of the top five players in the state at any position. He was right, of course.

Texas coach Jody Conradt credits Stacy with the revival of the UT women's basketball program, which had slipped in status before she got there. Last year, the Longhorns went to the Final Four and this season, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation late in the season.

By the time Stephens was a freshman in high school, she could palm a basketball in each of her hands, which were legendary for their size and strength.

At a game against Mount Vernon, Stephens came down with a rebound and another player knocked the ball out of her hands. Coach Hawkins said to the official, "That had to be a foul."

"No, it was clean," the referee responded.

"It's physically impossible for anyone to knock the ball out of her hands without fouling her," Hawkins said. "Physically impossible."

Stacy set a state high school record for rebounds and blocked shots, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. She was a four-time All-State player, the Class 3A Player of the Year as a senior and led the Lady Raiders to a pair of state championships.

As a senior, Winnsboro was doing lay-ups before the state championship game when Stephens went up for a dunk -- with the referees on the floor. It should have been a technical foul, but I think the officials were so surprised they didn't know what to do. That probably never had to even be aware of a high school girl attempting a dunk.

One of the officials looked at the other, then motioned for Stacy to come over to where he was standing, which was directly in front of the media table at the Frank Erwin Center.

"Did you just do what I think you did?" he asked.

"I just laid it in," Stacy said.

"That's what I thought."

When she committed to Texas as a senior, Stephens was regarded as one of the top players in the state, part of a group that included Chandi Jones, Shereka Wright and Ashley Robinson.

All four of those players were taken in Saturday's WNBA draft. Stephens went in the third round, the 37th pick overall, which was a little surprising since ESPN's draft analysis had her as one of the top eight players in the draft.

But, Stacy will be getting her opportunity to play professional basketball with the Houston Comets, who have won four of the WNBA's seven league championships. It's close enough that her parents, Kitty and Robert, will be able to continue seeing their baby play.

Since going to Texas, Stacy has returned to Winnsboro when possible, where she has arranged for the top Accelerated Readers to attend a UT game, helped with the Elementary Track and Field contest, and in perhaps the most notable gesture, she gave up the USA jersey she had worn for the women's Junior Olympic team to raise money for a high school student with cancer.

Through it all, Stacy remained the girl next door -- who happens to be one of the best basketball players in the world.

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