The East Henderson basketball players aren’t the only ones sitting on the Lady Eagles’ bench on game nights.
At the very end, past the players donning the green and white, is a unicorn decked out in a pink tutu, a purple, sparkly hat, goggles, a necklace and tattoos.
Z Baby – as the Lady Eagle players call her – doesn’t wear a jersey, but she’s a part of the team nonetheless. It’s an idea from assistant coach Brady Horne. One she brought with her from her softball coaching days at Presbyterian College.
It started with a stuffed pig that she got from her little cousin two Christmases ago.
“I brought it back and decided to use it as a motivational tool for us,” Horne said. “We made it our energy pig.”
After ever game, the East player that shows the most energy, hustle and all around team-boosting performance got to take the pig home. The pig – and now the unicorn – isn’t the same when they return.
“You add a little bit of yourself or something to it,” Horne said. “It’s got a little piece of everybody on it. It’s just a little motivational tool that we have fun with.”
This season, guard Drew McMillan has added a beaded necklace and the purple hat to the unicorn. While dressing the unicorn and adding a piece of themselves is fun, it’s just a bonus for what the true end goal is.
“To me and I think to everyone on our team we like having the unicorn and getting to do something with it, but we don’t play just to get the unicorn,” McMillan said. “We feel as if our hard work and effort should be expected. The unicorn just puts a little fun on top of things.”
East coach John Johnston has appreciated what the stuffed animals have meant to his team. It’s just more positive reinforcement when the Lady Eagles earn it. It goes beyond words, he said.
“It wasn’t a matter of whether we won or not,” Johnston said. “It was an effort thing. We always look forward to see what’s on it next. They enjoy it. I think it means a lot to this group. It’s something that they can see a reward for what they’re doing instead of the coaching just saying it to them.”
It also means something to Johnston. Mid-game, the veteran coach may wander to that side of the bench and fist bump Z Baby, he said.
“I don’t know how we’d feel without it at the end of the bench, if I’m being honest with you,” he said.
It’s a tradition that the coaches and players have come to love and McMillan hopes that it never goes away.
“I hope they do continue the tradition forever,” she said. “I like how each team restarts and has their own unicorn or pig. So it is a tradition but each team gets their own ‘mascot’ that they play for.”
East hosts Smoky Mountain tonight. The girls tip at 6 p.m. with the boys to follow.