Who says you can’t go home again?
Certainly not Bridget Carleton, who received a hero’s welcome when she stepped on the court Wednesday with the Iowa State Cyclones.
And definitely not the 1,200 fans who packed St. Clair College’s Thames Campus HealthPlex to watch the Chatham basketball star in her homecoming game.
Carleton kept her composure throughout the NCAA Division I contest against the Eastern Michigan Eagles. She finally shed some tears during a post-game address to the crowd.
“There are so many people out there that have been such a big part of my life,” said the Cyclones’ senior guard. “The fact that I get to come back and play in front of them, it just means a lot and it’s really special.”
It was a touching event for Cyclones head coach Bill Fennelly as well.
“This was an amazing night, one of the most amazing nights I’ve been a part of as a college coach,” Fennelly said. “Bridget deserves all this and we can not thank all the people in the Chatham-Kent area, all the people that did the work to make this happen.
“This is a night that I’m sure she’ll remember, her family will remember, for the rest of her life and I certainly will for the rest of my coaching life.”
The Cyclones try to schedule a game close to home for each senior, but they’d never come to Canada before.
Approximately 30 players and staff members arrived Tuesday night. They went to the Carleton home for a lasagna dinner cooked by Bridget’s parents, Rob and Carrie.
Carleton’s family and friends regularly go to her home games in Ames, Iowa. They were thrilled to be the hosts this time.
“Iowa State truly is a family,” said Carrie Carleton, who coached Bridget at John McGregor Secondary School. “They are all very genuine people. And that comes through when you talk to every single one of the staff, every single one of the kids that are on Bridget’s team. They are all very genuine people and they’re just good people to be around.”
The players paid a visit Wednesday morning to King George VI Public School, where Rob Carleton teaches. The students made signs for the Cyclones.
“Chatham’s my home, it always will be my home,” said Carleton, a two-time All-Big 12 first-team selection “I’m not here very much anymore, but I take a lot of pride in being from here, obviously being Canadian. It’s nice to come back and be able to give back and be kind of an inspiration to other young girls. It means a lot.”
She led the Cyclones with 17 points in an 85-59 win. She also had nine rebounds, four blocks and three assists.
But she got off to a shaky start, picking up two early fouls and sitting out most of the first quarter.
“Our kids care so much about Bridget,” Fennelly said. “I think they all were nervous. They were all a little uptight because they all wanted to go so well because of what they think of her and how much they care about her. That’s always a hard thing, but it makes it special that there is that buy-in from our group.
“At the end of the night, it was a good win for our team, but certainly this is Bridget’s day, Bridget’s night. I think the people here made her feel certainly at home and it was well-deserved.”
Carleton thanked her parents, sisters Rachel and Sarah, and the many volunteers – including Don Green, Nicole Quigley and Corky Butcher – who made the game possible.
“It really means a lot that I get to play in front of my family and friends one more time,” she said.
Carleton has led the Cyclones to a 5-0 start. She’s also been named to the watch lists for the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award, which go to the national player of the year.
She’s used to seeing her loved ones in the stands, but it’s been a long time since she’s played for them in Chatham.
“It’s an 11-hour drive to Iowa, so it’s not the easiest thing to do, but they love doing it,” she said. “And that support means the world. I think if I’m making them proud, then I’m happy and I’m good to go with whatever I’m doing. … My parents, my family, they mean the world to me. They’re really special.”
Fennelly and the rest of the Cyclones have grown to love them, too.
“It’s an honour to be here,” he said. “It’s the least we can do for Bridget and her family. The impact she’s made, not just on our basketball team, which is obviously huge because she’s such a great player, but in our community.
“We’re similar to the Chatham-Kent area. Same kind of size. People like each other, they stay connected. They love our university, so she’s made a very dramatic impact in our community, too.
“It’s been fun to get up here. She’s definitely getting the rock-star status. I think she’s rubbing it in a little bit with her teammates. Hopefully it’s a great experience for her and her family.”
She’ll graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology. Then she hopes to play professionally in the WNBA or in Europe while continuing to wear the Maple Leaf for Team Canada.
“My goal every summer is to be part of the national team,” she said. “That’s what I love to do. Playing for my country is something I will never take for granted. It’s something I take great pride in, so that’s my goal long-term – to reach the Olympics someday. I’ll keep playing as long as I love it.”