WOODBURN — The opening of the 2017-18 winter athletic season began innocuously enough for the Woodburn girls basketball team. Playing host to the North Salem Vikings, the Bulldogs raced out to an eight-point lead in the first half.
But the half concluded on a loose-ball play that nearly ended the playing career of then-sophomore guard Taiya Kent. Chasing after a rebound in the final seconds, Taiya fell backward under the Woodburn basket, snapping her head against the wood floor. Though she was wearing a padded headband, the impact was enough to give Taiya a concussion — the third of her career — which kept her from playing the remainder of the schedule and the following 2018-19 season.
"Getting my third one was really scary," Taiya said. "It was more than just basketball at that point. I kind of questioned . . . I didn't know what I was going to do."
Taiya had previously suffered two concussions while playing basketball in seventh grade. Each one kept her out of school for a month as she battled with symptoms that included sensitivity to light and loud noises. The third such incident in less than four years forced Taiya to contemplate what was more important: her passion or her longterm health.
"They kind of said three strikes, and you're out — especially with how my brain was doing and the after-effects," Taiya said. "I didn't pick up a basketball much between when I got my concussion and my junior year."
It was a difficult decision, but after playing competitively since fifth grade, Taiya had little choice. The sensitivity to light and sound made competing in a bright gymnasium full of cheering fans impossible. Other effects from the concussion included dizziness and an inability to concentrate the same way she used to before her injury.
"One of the biggest things I found hurt me from all my concussions was how I lost my train of thought," Taiya said. "Focusing was really hard...I get distracted super easily, and that can be hard in keeping your attention span."
What made the decision even harder was the gradual upward transition of a program that had struggled to win more than one game a season. In the offseason following Taiya's sophomore year, the Bulldogs introduced a new head coach — Taylor Foster (then Taylor Belmont) — bringing fresh enthusiasm to a team combined with a talented incoming freshman class that included Taiya's younger sister, Aria.
But while the most serious of the after-effects from her concussion a year earlier had subsided, the thought of not playing basketball for the first time since the fifth grade was a difficult mental hurdle to overcome.
"It was kind of hard because going into the gym for a long time was a dread for me," Taiya said. "It just brought back the fact that I just couldn't play any contact sport without fear of getting hit in the head."
Though Aria is two years younger than Taiya, the two had played together growing up when Aria had the opportunity to join the older teams. Like Taiya, Aria was a ball-dominant guard who was eager to put her mark on the program. In addition to the new coaching staff, Woodburn was facing new opponents in the 4A Classification. For the first time in three years, the Bulldogs won more than one game in a season, but Taiya was on the outside looking in.
"I wanted to be a good sister and be supportive with her," Taiya said. "I was able to catch a couple of games, and I will always cheer her on. It was kind of hard. It was something that was super close to my heart, but knowing it would make my sister feel better and that she would always have me to support her and be there for her is what made me go to those games and want to be a good fan."
She attended a handful of games but was no longer a part of the team. At home, Taiya would hear from her sister about the new direction the program was taking. Practices were more structured, the coaching staff was more positive, and the youth system was more organized. Taiya began contemplating what it would be like to come back and join the team for her senior season.
Mounting a comeback
But questions and the threat of a fourth concussion lingered.
How would Taiya protect herself from another head injury? Would she still be a productive player if she changed her aggressive style to avoid contact?
The first question was relatively easy to answer. The padded headband Taiya wore her freshman and sophomore season was ineffective in part because it was difficult to keep in place. It was jettisoned in favor of fully padded headgear that wrapped around her skull and fastened under her chin.
"We ended up finding this headgear for like lacrosse or soccer, and it ended up working really well, because it never slipped, never fell," she said.
Changing her game would be a different beast altogether, but Taiya was up for the challenge. No longer could she charge into the lane looking to draw contact every possession. Instead, she wanted to continue using her athleticism to her advantage.
"I wanted to be a better basketball player than how I was before I got my concussion," she said. "I strove to not only get into physical shape but also increase my basketball IQ."
Taiya may be short, but that belies an incredible leaping ability that, combined with her determination and work ethic, made her an ideal defender. She could harass opposing guards bringing the ball up the court and on the perimeter, then snake into the lane for rebounds after the shot went up.
"That's something that I pride in myself the most – trying to be a defensive leader," Taiya said. "Rebounds were something I really focused and prided myself on."
Taiya also brought with her the experience of being a former freshman on a varsity team and could help prepare the incoming players new to the varsity experience what to expect out of high-level high school basketball. Combined with her fiery enthusiasm, she was an ideal leader and role model for Coach Foster to lean on.
"She kind of asked for the same thing I wanted out of myself," Taiya said. "What we focused heavily on was being an upbeat leader and someone who can lift the team up and bring energy, as well as rebounding. Something that would hopefully help us."
With her younger sister running the offense, Taiya was free to play more off-ball. She ended up leading the Bulldogs in rebounding, pulling down eight boards a game — including a season-high 15 against Newport on Feb. 18 — and was second to Aria in steals at 2.1 per game.
The team saw success as well.
Woodburn won its first two games of the season by a combined 51 points. The Bulldogs went 8-15 overall — their best record since the 2010-11 season. Woodburn also finished 5-7 in the Oregon West Conference, sweeping both Sweet Home and Sisters, and finished tied for fourth in the league standings. Though the Bulldogs failed to make the playoffs like Taiya had envisioned coming into the season, it was the program's best league finish since the OSAA moved to six classifications in 2006.
"It was such a passionate season for me," Taiya said. "It brought out a lot of emotions. It made me believe we can do a lot more than what we showcased."
Woodburn made a name for itself in the Oregon West as a team that couldn't be counted out, rallying from big deficits behind a flurry of 3-pointers and aggressive defense. It was a style of play unfamiliar to the program for many years and one that made the Bulldogs an uncomfortable team to play.
"I'm super proud of how it ended up turning out," Taiya said. "Just because we came up with this dynamic where we always felt like we were underdogs, and it felt super great to be on a team where we could be down so much and be able to pick it back up."
Getting to play with Aria one last time was another positive. Though they are both guards, the two complement each other on the court, creating a formidable defensive point of attack. Aria earned Second Team All-Conference honors this season, and Taiya was named to the Honorable Mention Team — providing a bookend to her career that began with Honorable Mention recognition as a freshman in 2017.
"We fed off of each other," Taiya said. "She makes me want to be a better basketball player, and I hope I can say the same for her as well."
Though the last game of the season is more than a month old, it still hasn't totally sunk in that her high school playing days are behind her.
"I was sure I was going to bawl and be super sad, but it just never hit me," she said. "It's taking a little longer to wrap my head around it. I'm trying to delay that a little bit, but it still hasn't completely sunk in."
She's contemplating continuing her playing career nearby at the collegiate level but has yet to make any firm decisions. For now, she's content to play with her family while finishing her senior year outside the classroom due to the cancellation of classes.
Taiya is looking forward to continuing to support Aria next season and the introduction of another Kent to the Woodburn basketball program — incoming freshman Brynna."She's a shooter definitely. She's more an Aria-type player, but she's got long arms," Taiya said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they put her at post because she's one of the taller girls coming up in our program. But I see her as a wing-post combo."
As one of eight seniors graduating from this year's team, Taiya knows the returning players have a lot of work to do to continue the upward momentum of the program and make their first playoff push in nearly 10 years. But with Brynna's incoming freshman class, the strong group of junior varsity players waiting in the wings, and the coaching staff, Taiya is confident that the program is in good hands.
"I have a really good feeling about how some of the girls from JV and some of the freshmen are going to come up because they have a very good sense of family, and they're super close," Taiya said. "From my freshman year to my senior year, it's like a complete 180 in terms of being more prepared and who's coming up. It's exciting to be a part of it, but also exciting to see what the future holds for them. I'm excited to watch them later."
And wherever Taiya's journey takes her after this year, basketball will no doubt be somewhere in the picture.
"I definitely plan to continue playing just for fun, because it's something that makes me happy, makes me feel good as a person," she said.
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