Edward Little High School graduate Eraleena Gethers-Hairston plays for the Central Maine Community College Mustangs. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — Eraleena Gethers-Hairston has been through more than most.

Growing up in a single-parent home, the Edward Little High School graduate and now Central Maine Community College senior has learned to be a part of a team. For a while, it was just her and her mother, Phyllis Hairston.

“It’s a very different world for me,” Gethers-Hairston said. “My mom has been phenomenal being my backbone. She tells me to keep my head up and, no matter what anyone says, to be you. She’s there no matter what. Me and my mom have been through a lot in the last six years. A lot.”

After Edward Little, Gethers-Hairston attended Springfield College for a year before coming back home. When she got home, Gethers-Hairston sent an email to CMCC women’s basketball coach Andrew Morong, who responded quickly, telling Gethers-Hairston to come see him about being on the team.

“Things were kind of rough (at Springfield), with it being expensive, being away from home and my mom being a single parent, and so I had to come home,” Gethers-Hairston said. “I didn’t think he would let me be one of his players. He replied in two minutes, saying to come to his office and welcome to the team.”

Since then, Gethers-Hairston has been a starter on the Mustangs’ 2017 USCAA DII national championship team, and has became part of a second family.

After the Mustangs won the first national title by any women’s team in Maine, the team traveled back to Kirk Hall Gymnasium to celebrate, with the local news on hand.

What Gethers-Hairston didn’t tell anyone at the time was that her mother was in the hospital having heart surgery after a severe heart attack while the team was celebrating what should have been one of her happiest days.

“She almost died,” Gethers-Hairston said. “When we won the championship, I didn’t want to ruin the moment because we were on live news being the first women’s basketball team in Maine to ever win a championship.”

“I was just soaking,” she continued. “I had just got done crying, and I did not want to be there. I wanted to be in the hospital with my mom, and Morong was asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said nothing because I didn’t want to tell him until after. He found out and he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘I didn’t want to ruin your day when my day is already ruined.’

Morong and Gethers-Hairston’s relationship has continued to grow and become tighter. When Hairston was in the hospital, Morong and the mother of Gethers-Hairston’s nephews, Chelsey, were there for her.

“He was always there for me. If I needed somewhere to stay, I had a place to stay,” Gethers-Hairston said. “He’s not only my coach, but he’s like a father to me, even though he’s only like 12 years older than me. My team was there for me, also.”

Gethers-Hairston’s growth was evident in her second season at CMCC.

At the beginning of her first season at CMCC, she was suspended for two months for threatening a teammate. Gethers-Hairston was let back onto the team, and continued to work to be an integral part of it. In her second season, as the team arrived for the second semester of school, Morong told her that he was moving her to the bench to stagger her with other forwards such as Jordyn Reynolds, another former Edward Little standout.

Most players might ask questions and wonder what they did wrong, why they aren’t starting, and would worry about their stat line. Not Gethers-Hairston.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Gethers-Hairston said. “That’s the difference between me and some of the other girls is that I have a more mature mind where I say, ‘OK, whatever I have to do for my team.’ It’s just like my family, when my mom says to do something for my family, I’m gonna do it. I didn’t even put up a fight, I still got the same minutes, still play the same.”

Morong said no one has grown more as a person under his tutelage than Gethers-Hairston, who lives with her mother in Auburn and commutes everyday to the CMCC campus.

“I think most of her life has been kind of up against it,” Morong said. “A black woman in one of the whitest states in the country. I think she’s had some personal struggles in her home life she has had to overcome, and we talk all the time about making these teachable moments to grow. Everything that has gone against her in her life has also made her so successful.”

After finishing her associate’s degree last spring in criminal justice — the first college degree in her family — Gethers-Hairston is now in the middle of receiving her advanced certificate in police operations to become a cop.

Every morning from 8-11 a.m., Gethers-Hairston goes through boot camp to prepare for the police force. For her, it’s another family that she’s been able to be apart of.

“Boot camp is very difficult,” Gethers-Hairston said. “The physical stuff is easy, it’s just the mental stuff. Sometimes I’ll be gassed because of basketball, or I’ll be gassed at basketball. It’s a lot of physical stuff, training every day, and they train you to be ready for the worst day of your life on the force.”

Growing up, Gethers-Hairston was intrigued by “guns, speeding and chasing people,” and that’s what she told her boot camp officers at the beginning of the program. Even against her mother’s wishes, Gethers-Hairston is pursuing her dream of being a state trooper.

“I don’t know how many minority police officers we have in the state, especially female,” Morong said. “I think she could have made excuses, but she decided to make something out of herself.”

There are similarities between boot camp and basketball.

“Her and I talk all the time about consistency, because you can’t show up on duty and have a bad day,” Morong said. “We spend a lot of time talking about that everything we do here is prepping her for her future. I get goosebumps when I think about what she’s going through and what she’s about to have and earned. I don’t think it can get much more inspiring.”

On the court, Gethers-Hairston will be coming off the bench again to start the season. The Mustangs have eight players returning, including Brooke Reynolds, who has played with Gethers-Hairston since the seventh grade at Auburn Middle School.

“We met in the seventh grade and my dad coached us, then all the way through high school we were together,” Reynolds said. “Freshman year of college, I was at St. Joe’s and I was on the team but I didn’t really play much. She was at Springfield, so we didn’t stay in contact a lot. She heard I was coming here and then we picked up right where we left off like it was back in high school, like we never stopped talking.”

The two seniors know where each other will be on the court, how to make the other better and what each other like. Both are also taking on huge leadership roles that they have been groomed for over their past two successful seasons. The first few games will be a good gauge as to where the Mustangs are after about a month of practice.

“It’s going to be a good test to see how we are doing, how our defense is,” Reynolds said. “I think we have a lot of talent on our team, and I think we are just focused on us. The end goal is to win two championships, so we are just going to work hard and do everything we can to get the job done.”

Gethers-Hairston also believes this year’s team has the talent to revenge their playoff loss a season ago, but the team is focusing more at the moment on coming together as one.

“I’m hoping it’ll be like the last two seasons, but you can’t make any promises or see into the future,” Gethers-Hairston said. “I do think that we will have a successful team. We need to build a lot of chemistry off the court because we have so much talent.”

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