Lucas overcomes adversity to reach collegiate-level athletics and continue hoop dreams at EMU

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Caris Lucas
PCHS senior Caris Lucas is joined by her two brothers Ty and Caden, her parents Tommy and Erica, girls basketball coach E.J. Wyant, and her longtime friend, classmate and teammate Leah Hilliard as the first team All-Region selection signs paperwork to play next season with D-III Eastern Mennonite University on Friday, April 8 in the PCHS gymnasium.

By Randy Arrington

SHENANDOAH, April 8 — To see Caris Lucas sprint down the court this season, hit a three-pointer with ease or scramble on the floor for a loose ball, many in the stands simply saw a talented player with a lot of heart and grit. However, a few knew that this standout player also overcame years of obstacles to earn the grit, the talent, and the heart that she displays today.

The Page County High School senior averaged 13 points per game on the court this season, along with 3.5 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals — good enough to earn first team All-District and All-Region. Lucas scored 304 points during her senior year and totaled 853 points for her career as a Panther.

Family, friends and school officials gathered Friday afternoon in the PCHS gymnasium to celebrate the next step for Lucas — playing Division III women’s basketball at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg.

“EMU is gaining a great student-athlete,” PCHS Athletic Director Bill Simmons said on Friday. “She’s been a leader in the classroom and in the community, as well as a leader on the court.”

In addition to doing volunteer work for the Ronald McDonald House and at the Luray Marathon, Lucas earned a 4.667 grade point average in the classroom and has almost completed one year of college courses through Lord Fairfax Community College’s dual enrollment program prior to her high school graduation this spring.

“I love this girl,” PCHS girls basketball coach E.J. Wyant said. “I’ve had her ever since she was an eighth grader. She means the world to me. I am so happy for her.”

Among the obstacles that Lucas and Coach Wyant faced this season was losing last season’s first team All-Region selection Leah Hilliard in the first half of the first game on the road at Broadway. While the Panthers came away with an impressive opening victory over a larger school, the loss of Hilliard initially devastated the team.

“It was definitely a trial in the beginning…it was tough, we had to adjust as a team…I had to adjust to being a guard…several people had to get used to different positions,” Lucas said. “It was very discouraging…losing Leah, and knowing how much she loved basketball…and at first I was at a loss for words.”

Lucas and Hilliard had played basketball together since the eighth grade, when Lucas came to the PCHS junior varsity program after transferring from Mount Carmel Christian Academy. In 2021-22, this was to be their year, along with fellow senior Gracie Mason — competing for a district and region title en route to the state tournament.

“It was extremely difficult,” Lucas said. “There certainly were expectations going into the season, and those expectations were not lowered. I feel we could have gone further with Leah, but I’m happy with how our team responded.”

Despite short stints away for surgery and recovery, Hilliard remained involved with the team. She stayed in contact all season, through the ups and downs, with calls and texts, getting and giving feedback and input, even though she couldn’t be on the court.

“She gave me more hope that we could pull things together, and she never lost that smile,” Lucas said of her longtime friend and classmate. “Even though she was not on the court, she was by my side the whole time.”

Lucas and the Panthers played inspired basketball all season and still came within one win of making the state tournament.

For her hard work and accolades this season, Lucas caught the eye of EMU head coach Jenny (Logan) Posey, who will enter her fifth season with the Royals next year. After becoming Luray High School’s all-time leading scorer in basketball (until this season), Posey went on to become an All-ODAC performer at Bridgewater College.

The Royals will need some help coming off a 6-18 season this year (2-16 in the ODAC). With only two graduating seniors, EMU women’s basketball brings back seven rising-sophomores and four rising juniors next season. Lucas feels she can make an immediate impact on a still young team.

“I felt like EMU was the place for me to be, and I want to make a difference on the floor. I’m already working out and bettering myself,” Lucas said. “I have expectations to get playing time… I think we can build and be a top team [in the ODAC] before I graduate.”

The Panther standout had three schools show interest, including one school in South Carolina and another member of Virginia’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC). Lucas said she chose EMU after getting to know Coach Posey, although she admitted that being a small school close to home helped as well. She plans to study nursing.

Lucas credits her gritty play on growing up with two brothers, and her talent to her parents, who were both standout athletes at PCHS. The blue blood Panther says even playing for a former Bulldog doesn’t discourage her.

“Luray is a big rival, but I go to church with a lot of those girls,” Caris said. “On the court, I don’t care who it is…I will play to win. [As far as Coach Posey]…I think I will have some fun with her.”

The fact that Lucas has risen to the level of collegiate athletics coming from a small, rural school, takes on even more meaning when one considers that doctors once thought she would never walk again.

At the tender age of 5, Caris was diagnosed with Perthes Disease, a rare degenerative hip disease. To this day, Caris wears lifts in her right shoe, but when she was 5 doctors said there was “not much hope of walking again,” her mother Erica remembered. “She had a cast on both legs and a bar between her legs to separate them and get the blood flowing to save her hip.”

Erica believes “God’s mercy and grace” changed the course of their lives as Caris went through several surgeries at VCU’s Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and spent the better part of first and second grade being wheelchair bound.

“During those times, we grew in grace and love…,” Erica said. “We had the opportunity to bond stronger as a family and it helped us all get stronger. You can see it in the character of Caris.”

For mom and dad, Caris heading to collegiate basketball is a dream come true. Erica is a PCHS Hall of Famer in basketball and volleyball, the same sports Caris plays. Tommy was an All-District standout in football. They both graduated in 1994 and later married. They are now raising three more Panthers — and they get to see their oldest continue playing basketball in college.

“I’m so thankful,” Erica said. “Now, we get to watch her for four more years.”

Erica says she and her husband did not push Caris into athletics because of her previous health issues, but they didn’t need to — Caris has, and continues to, push herself.

Coach Wyant travels over the mountain from Rockingham County twice a week to help Caris run through drills and practice routines she has already begun in preparation for EMU. He hits the gym, in the off-season, because he cares about his players and he respects the legacy that Caris leaves behind.

“She embodies everything we want our program to be about…hard work, character,” Wyant said. “She’s a great player, but she’s an even better person.”

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