With the dog days of summer upon us, McKinney Courier Gazette sports editor Kendrick E. Johnson will look back and catch up with some former McKinney ISD athletes who starred at one of the three high schools over the last three decades in the upcoming weeks.
This week’s guest is a part of McKinney’s Class of 1996 and is one of the best girls basketball players to ever don a Lionette jersey and had a success track career as well. Following her basketball career and graduating from the University of North Texas, she currently is making a difference as McKinney’s city secretary.
Sit back and enjoy the fourth of six installments of “Where Are They Now” Sunday Spotlight conversations, continuing with guest McKinney girls basketball legend and UNT product Empress Drane.
How good did it feel to play a big role in turning around the Lionettes’ basketball program?
Drane: Playing on varsity for four years was very rewarding to continually improve and eventually land in the playoffs after falling short a couple of seasons. I began team sports in seventh grade, so as a freshman, I didn’t have a lot of experience or skill to immediately offer.
Fortunately, there was an opportunity to learn from several juniors and seniors who set a standard for work ethic and responsibility of being on a team. Monica Lee and twins Misty and Kristy Littrell were some of the best people to be around, because they competed hard and embraced the whole team.
They were character models that others looked up to and wanted to be around. Getting to the playoffs was a development process for many of us. I especially recall my friend Natalie Allen, who was so tough defensively.
She was built for getting stops and getting into the opposing guard’s head. That was always fun to watch. Without question, our overall talent skyrocketed with the addition of players like Jamie Critchfield and Tracy Gahan, who both earned numerous accolades in multiple sports for McKinney.
More than wins and losses, I have immense pride and appreciation for having played with a lot of great teammates and the experiences of being with them.
What game or moment do you remember most from you high school career?
Drane: It’s hard to narrow it down but going to state with the 1600-meter relay team, winning the bronze and finishing in what was then a school record time - that ranks very high. The team consisted of twins Kim and Cathy Hennessey, Lacresha Norman, alternate Julie Obrecht, and me.
We probably didn’t look like the most competitive bunch, but we worked hard and had a phenomenal coach in Cherie Washington. She brought enthusiasm and a winning attitude, and flat-out demanded our best every single day.
Leading up to state, our team won almost every meet. The regional win came with a bit of drama, as we battled Dallas Lincoln for one of the top spots. Our teams ran a tight race in which Lincoln was disqualified for a bad exchange, and we took 1st place and moved on to state.
When did you know you were better than most at the game of basketball and how did that confidence help you produce one of the most productive careers in McKinney girls basketball history?
Drane: I didn’t think of myself as better because there was always something else for me to work on and improve. As a high-energy kid, basketball was a great way to do what I enjoyed – running and jumping like crazy.
I just worked hard, and the process of learning – in practices and games – was fun. Our best teams had several talented players, and I felt lucky to be one among the group.
I learned by watching teammates who were usually more skilled than me, and I tried to emulate what they did well.
What were the emotions when you got the call that you will be part of the McKinney ISD Hall of Honor?
Drane: No doubt about it – it’s an honor and incredibly humbling to even be considered. I was almost speechless. Knowing the caliber of student-athletes, teams and coaches on that list, especially some of the people I had the good fortune of playing alongside or witnessing – I’m grateful.
What’s most special is being part of the same class as Darla Sessom, who has been an influential figure to so many athletes including me personally.
Who has had the biggest impact on you on and off the court?
Drane: I have learned so much from so many, it’s difficult to name everyone, but anyone who knows me well knows my grandmother, Vertis Lee, was the most important person in my life. She raised me from when I was very young, and she was a beautiful example of faith, goodness, hard work.
After completing eighth grade, she worked jobs to help her family and did not complete any more schooling. Despite that, she was one of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I’ve known.
She emphasized the importance of education, respect for all people, and using every talent to be successful. Even today, I strive to be the kind of person she would be proud of.
What made you come back home after college to work for the city of McKinney?
Drane: I was fortunate for the opportunity to work for McKinney Parks and Recreation because it was an opportunity to serve my hometown and neighborhood. Growing up, I spent countless hours with friends in the east McKinney parks, and Old Settler’s Recreation Center opened the year I graduated high school.
It was a privilege, coming full circle to help provide activities for kids and families in the community I knew as a kid. McKinney continues to grow as a great city, and it’s been a great experience for me.
How excited will you be when they recognize you and the rest of the McKinney ISD Hall of Honor Class of 2020 during at halftime of the McKinney vs. North football season opener?
Drane: The Crosstown Showdown is usually one of the athletic highlights of the year in our city. It’s fun to see all the school spirit and community spirit on full display. MISD does a great job of promoting the programs and planning festivities that bring the city together.
I’m looking forward to being a part of the event and meeting other honorees.