Tragedy strikes Stillwater again

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Not again.

Those words seared themselves into the minds of Oklahoma State fans Friday when tragedy rocked the university's campus after women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna were killed in a plane crash in Perry County, Ark., the night before. Just more than a decade ago, 10 members of the Cowboys' basketball program were killed in a plane crash in Colorado.

On a windy November afternoon, the Oklahoma State family was left to pick up the pieces yet again.

"Lightning is not supposed to strike twice," OSU student Ryan Wylie said. "But it did."

Budke and Serna were on a recruiting trip when the plane went down Thursday afternoon. Pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula, were the only others on board. There were no survivors.

For Oklahoma State, the plane crash brought back memories of the Jan. 27, 2001, crash which killed two players, four team officials, a play-by-play announcer, a radio engineer and two pilots.

"It's almost impossible to think it would happen once," Casey Kendrick said. "And it's happened twice."

Kendrick, the radio analyst for OSU women's basketball, understands the pain felt by those within the Cowgirls' program better than most. He was in the room when the players were told of the plane crash.

"It was extremely sad," Kendrick said. "Tough to witness, a lot of broken hearts and a lot of broken kids. It was very touching, very moving and very difficult."

Assistant coach Jim Littell, who will be the Cowgirls' interim coach, was tasked with mourning Budke, a very close friend who was the best man at his wedding, while also trying to manage the sadness and emotions of the players on the team.

"There was a lot of tears, there's no manual for this," Kendrick said. "They made sure the kids knew they loved them and they were really there for the kids. And that's what this was about, it's not about basketball. We're family."

A memorial featuring pictures of Budke and Serna was set up in the Gallagher-Iba Arena just outside of the team's basketball offices along with a banner which was signed by several people throughout the day, including several Cowgirls players.

Known for his commitment and passion for his family, Budke leaves behind his wife, Shelley, and three children, Sara, Alex and Brett. Juggling the demands of coaching Division I basketball and being a family man was difficult, but Budke did it better than most, rarely missing his kids' extracurricular activities. He put his family first and everyone around him knew it.

"It was by far his strongest trait," Kendrick said. "First time I talked to Coach Budke, he told me, 'I want you to know one thing.' Then he pointed at a picture of his family and said, 'That's the most important thing in my life.' He maneuvered his professional life to make time for his family."

Serna, who served as Oklahoma State's recruiting coordinator, also made family a top priority in her life, often taking her mother, Nettie Herrera, on trips with her across the country.

"She loved recruiting, she loved the kids," Kendrick said. "She had a tremendous relationship with her mother, their relationship was extremely tight. That's what makes this so tough, thinking about the families."

Oklahoma State and the Stillwater community are uniquely equipped to handle the tragedy in the days, weeks and months to follow. After the January 2001 crash, a memorial was built in the lobby of Gallagher-Iba Arena -- several sets of flowers and a lighted candle sat on the memorial on Friday -- and "Remember the Ten" has become an annual proclamation each January.

"OSU is Stillwater and Stillwater is OSU," Wylie said. "It's one big family. Everybody will rally around each other like they did last time."

Wylie, who lost his uncle and two close friends in a plane crash just more than one year ago, made a point to spend time at the memorial for Budke and Serna. A former manager on the football team, Wylie knew there would be heavy hearts and wanted to lend a shoulder to cry on along with some pieces of encouragement. When asked what advice he would give to the Cowgirls coaches and players, he fell back on his personal experience with tragedy.

"The pain will always be there," he said. "Because you know the routines they had. You'll get used to them not being there, but you'll always have that memory. Even though they're not there, they're there.

"It will be hard, it will be a challenging time for the next few months and weeks. It will be hard to get over, but with the support that will be offered it will be overcome."

Slowly but surely, the sadness of dealing with another tragedy and loss will be overcome by remembering the impact Budke and Serna had on the lives of so many people at Oklahoma State and beyond.

"This is a resilient university and a resilient state," Kendrick said. "We have been through a tremendous amount of turmoil and tragedy. It will not be easy, it will definitely take a long time.

"You don't want to have to do it again, but we have the ability to do it again."

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.