Ashlee Burdg huddled into Room 2 at Billings High School (Oklahoma) at 9:30 a.m. for a team meeting. She stared ahead at her teammates, then down at the floor. The normally bubbly Burdg, the only girl on the all-boys squad, couldn't muster a joke this time.
It was Friday, Nov. 1, hours away from Billings' first game of the 2016-17 season against Mid Moore, a Christian school near Oklahoma City. Billings coach Daniel Long, who teaches science, drew a deep breath.
"[Mid Moore's] parents don't want their boys playing against a girl," Long said. "It's not in their religious beliefs."
Burdg offered to sit out when she learned Mid Moore threatened to forfeit if she played. The boys fumed. To them, she's just another baller. Sure, the 5-foot-6 shooting guard's blonde-hair -- -- sometimes uninhibited by a hair-band -- flows much longer than her teammates, but that's about the only difference. She rains 3-pointers. She dives for loose balls. She challenges 6-2 boys under the rim.
"Ashlee's part of the team and she's going to play with us or we ain't going to play at all," junior Eldren Darger said. "She's earned her place on the team. That'd be like playing without one of us."
Billings took the forfeit victory, and would do so again in the teams' second meeting.
Burdg, a junior, is the first girl to play for a boys' high school basketball team within the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. Burdg joined the boys' team in late October after Billings, a school of 25 high school students, didn't have enough players for a girls' team.
Burdg, her family, and Billings' athletic administration lobbied for nearly two months for her to join the boys' team. They cited Hannah McNulty, who became the first girl to play for a high school boys' hoops team in Vermont in 2011. Two Catholic teams in New Jersey -- St. Theresa's in Kenilworth and St. John's in Clark -- made national headlines last month when girls fought for the right to play with boys.
Hearing "no" several times, Long wasn't sure if Burdg would be able to convince the state. But a week before the season started, she was given the green light to play. She expected to face naysayers, but blocked out the noise.
She simply hungered to hoop.
"If you really want something, you can do it. That's how I was raised," Burdg said. "Just because you're a girl doesn't mean you can't do something that you want to. You can do anything that you set your mind to if you try hard enough."
Most in Billings, a town in Northwest Oklahoma of roughly 500, surrounded by one convenience store, a nursing home, a bank, a post office and notoriously-spotty cell service, know Burdg --the girl who carries her ball on her hip to Lions Park day after day to play pick-up with the boys.
Playing since age 4, Burdg relishes the grit and grind of the sport -- the behind-the-scenes hustle not every player is willing to commit to. "She likes being aggressive, just getting out there and putting everything into it," said mom Amanda Kendall. "She'd rather be with the boys than the girls. She's right in there, just as tough as the boys are."
This season, she helped Billings (5-10) to the district playoff tournament before the team was eliminated by Deer Creek-Lamont, 63-28.
"Just because you're a girl doesn't mean you can't do something that you want to. You can do anything that you set your mind to if you try hard enough." Ashlee Burdg
Her teammates were unsure of how to guard her early in the season. During the team's first practice, Burdg caught the ball in the post. She took two dribbles, backed her man down and drop-stepped for the layup. Her defender fell over.
The boys looked at each other; Burdg could hang. "She ain't afraid to get down and dirty with the guys and get rough and physical," sophomore Michael Morehouse said.
During a game against Grace Christian, Burdg found herself sliding her feet, bending low on defense, against a quick guard. The boy tried to juke her, as he swerved back and forth across the top of the key. "He was trying to intimidate me," Burdg said. She stayed low -- and the boy had no choice but to plow into her. She rolled across the hardwood, but didn't wait for someone to lend a hand. She bounced back up, as she always does.
Another game, against Wynona, Burdg was blocked twice -- once on a 3 and once driving in for a layup. A few minutes later, she was on defense. A boy caught the ball at the arc and rose up to release a 3.
Burdg popped out of nowhere. "I stuffed him. I just knocked it down," said Burdg, who made two other shots and a free throw at the end of the game to help Billings to the 44-37 win. "Their team just stopped like, 'Did that really happen?'"
Long knew Burdg was physically tough. She never finished last in practice sprints. She never complained when bumps and bruises surfaced after scrimmages. But after she blocked that shot?
"I think that game showed: she's here to stay," Long said. "She had no fear whatsoever."
Now Burdg has her eyes set on the gridiron. She plans to try out for the football team (Billings does not have a team, but co-opts with Deer Creek-Lamont's varsity squad).
"She will get out there and she will do what she needs to do to be able to play," Long said. "She's one that if she puts her mind to it, nothing's going to stop her."