Feelings mixed with nerves and excitement is how Heather Butler, freshman guard on the Skyhawk Women’s basketball team, describes playing in the NCAA Tournament this year.
“My first thought was ‘I cannot believe we are getting to play in the tournament I grew up watching since middle school,’” Butler said. “It was incredible to think about what kind of opportunity this was. It was an experience I will never forget.” Butler added that the team learned a lot “that will make us better next season.”
The Skyhawks won the OVC Championship, which earned them a spot in the NCAA tournament. And, while her best game was against Murray State at home, “when it seemed like every shot was going in,” the game that stands out most in her mind is the one against Tennessee Tech in Nashville that clinched the OVC title. “Being on the all-OVC team is a blessing, as well. I am very thankful for all of the honors I have received, and I truly give all the glory to God.”
Watching the NCAA tournament in middle school was not the beginning of basketball for Butler, a native of Minneapolis, Minn., who lives in Medina. “I began playing in second grade. I grew up watching my brother and sister play basketball, and my sister began teaching me all the drills she did in practice.” She added, “Basketball means a lot to me. It is my passion, and it has always been a big part of my life.”
To pursue that dream, she has devoted the majority of each year, including summers, practicing or playing the game. “I consider basketball my lifestyle.”
Butler has garnered her share of rewards for all the hard work. At Gibson County High School, she played under current Skyhawk coach, Kevin McMillan. In the 2008-09 season, she helped lift the team to a 39-0 season en route to the district, regional and Tennessee state championship. She scored 93 points in three state tournament games to set a new state record and 19 of 28 points in the state title game. She was named to all-district, all-region and all-state teams and was the Jackson Sun All-West Tennessee Player of the Year her senior year. She was also a Class A Miss Basketball finalist.
“Winning a high school state championship was one of the best moments of my life,” Butler said. Everybody always asks her how it felt to win the state title, “but to be honest ... nobody can understand how it feels unless they have won a state championship. It is an indescribable feeling.”
Butler always knew she wanted to play at the college level. “It was and still is my goal to get as far as I can with basketball. I could not imagine my life without it.”
She chose UT Martin because McMillan was her high school coach for two years, and he and coach David Russell led the team to the state championship. After the pair became UT Martin coaches, it was her first choice, but she still wanted to check out other colleges. “When I visited other colleges, I finally decided that UT Martin was where I wanted to be. I knew coach and the others would lead us to something big.” And, she knew she would be surrounded by good people, who cared about her on and off the court.
“I appreciate the fact that Coach McMillan and my teammates all care about me. Coach is just like a dad to me, because he is always there for me if I need something.” Her teammates, she added, are like a second family.
Butler, who maintains an excellent grade-point average, said it has been challenging to stay on top of her classes along with basketball. “In high school, I had to do the same thing, but, of course, college is a different level, but I still seem to manage.” She added, “Basketball may be my life, but I definitely have to focus on receiving my education, as well.”
Playing beyond college has always been her dream, “and I will keep striving to get better each year so I can get that opportunity.” Beyond basketball, she thinks of careers such as personal training, coaching and teaching and others that relate to working with children.
In her “spare” time, the youngest of Susan Butler’s four children is interested in watching movies, going to events with family and friends, anything that involves playing games or other sports and God.