There were bitterly cold days in South Dakota and lonely nights in North Carolina, times when Cassidy O’Brien might as well have been alone both on and off the court.
She was far from her friends, her former basketball teammates and then her father over the past two years.
Those good old times in the Sunshine State — especially at her beloved Sickles High — seemed like a distant memory.
“I was kind of out of it,” O’Brien admitted. “But I learned to deal with it. It made me tougher.”
Her parents also longed for the familiarity of Florida and when the opportunity arose this summer, they packed up their belongings — even those heavy winter clothes they’ll no longer need — and moved across the street from the school they called home for many years.
Yes, the O’Briens are back at Sickles and their return has been a pleasant surprise for the girls basketball program Cassidy left a couple years ago.
She is the leading scorer for the Gryphons (9-0), who have shown few signs of slippage this season despite the graduation of Times’ Player of the Year Bre Crum. The homecoming for their homegrown star has Sickles poised for its fifth district title since 2000 and sixth straight playoff berth.
O’Brien is the Gryphons’ leading scorer at nearly 15 points per game, the only player to average in double figures. She has returned to her old school just in time to take on some of Crum’s scoring burden, in a more methodical if less explosive way.
In a victory Wednesday over Armwood that gave Sickles sole possession of first place in Class 6A, District 11, O’Brien shot 2-of-12 but finished with a team-high 11 points by making 7-of-8 from the free-throw line.
“One thing that helped us this season was getting (O’Brien),” Sickles coach Mark Key said. “This kid does a lot of things for us. She really fits into what we needed.”
When O’Brien was last a student at Sickles, she was one of two freshmen on a team that went 25-4 — including a 12-0 run through district — and advanced to the 5A region final.
She fully expected to expand her role on varsity the next year and shoot for another district, if not state, championship with teammates she’d first started playing with at Smith Middle School.
But those hoop dreams were interrupted by the gridiron ambitions of her father, former Sickles head football coach Pat O’Brien, who accepted an assistant’s job at Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D., in July 2010.
“I didn’t get much warning,” Cassidy O’Brien said. “I grew up walking these halls. It was really hard.”
Their move to Aberdeen was fraught with challenges: the frigid climate (the average low temperature in December is 6 degrees), the isolation of living in a city of 26,000 (Aberdeen is known as the “Hub City of the Dakotas”), and the adjustment of fitting in with classmates who had known each other for many years.
O’Brien said she never meshed with her teammates at Aberdeen Central, a Midwestern hoops power.
“It’s weird because I wasn’t used to being a really big outsider,” O’Brien said.
By next winter, once it was clear South Dakota wasn’t a good fit, O’Brien’s parents allowed her to move in with her grandparents in Cashiers, N.C.
There, O’Brien flourished as the top scoring option for Blue Ridge High School and was named to the Little Smoky Mountain all-conference team. Her mother even followed her to North Carolina while Pat O’Brien stayed behind in Aberdeen.
But it still wasn’t the same: the competition and coaching weren’t the best, and Blue Ridge counted on Cassidy O’Brien to do it all.
“In those games where we needed that help,” she said, “it just wasn’t there.”
The family knew that arrangement couldn’t last much longer. And though Pat O’Brien enjoyed coaching college football, he missed his family and started looking for coaching opportunities back in Florida.
“There’s a lot more to life than work,” O’Brien said. “We figured the best thing was to get back down to Florida and make it all about (Cassidy) and make her senior year special for her.”
Waiting for her were old teammates like Ciera Wheatley, eager to welcome her back into the fold.
“We all have a bond,” said Wheatley, a junior point guard who averages nearly 10 points. “It’s like we’re all family.”
O’Brien has also done her part to make this year special by leading the Gryphons to their best start since 2009-10, when she was a freshman.
Coming home has been good for both her and Sickles.
“It’s like deja vu,” O’Brien said. “It almost feels unreal.”