How Harding Prep's Kendra Gillispie keeps 'pushing like a freight train' after losing 'guardian angel'
Kendra Gillispie puts on her jersey and laces up her sneakers like she’s always done before games.
But this season, whenever she ties those shoes, she is reminded of how different this is.
On the left heel: R.I.P. DADDY.
On the right: 5/11/2020.
This was supposed to be a season of celebration for Gillispie. The Marquette signee has turned Harding Charter Prep into a Class 4A darkhorse. She helped Norman win a state title before transferring to Harding two years ago. Add that experience to the 6-foot-2 forward’s ability to take over games, and why would another title be out of the question?
But this season has become a season of gratitude.
“You got to really count your blessings with God and thank him for the days that you have here,” she said.
Gillispie’s high school career has been a long, winding journey that’s taken her through three high schools, two college commitments, one serious knee injury and a family-changing event.
Her father, Devin Gillispie, died on Mother’s Day after taking what he thought was oxycodone. Instead, it was fentanyl. Counterfeit oxycodone pills were responsible for the accidental overdose death of at least 10 Oklahomans last year, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.
His death hit hard.
Gillispie and her father were nearly inseparable. They made home videos together. Listened to music. Thought of each other as best friends. They had even been together only hours before he died.
“It was pretty detrimental,” Gillispie said. “You never know when your last day is going to be.”
She never imagined that her father wouldn’t be around for the last days of her high school career.
Kendra Gillispie is no stranger to difficulties.
Still, she's excelled at every turn.
In 2018, Gillispie planned to start high school in Norman. But because she already lived in the Moore School District and her mom was on the coaching staff at Westmoore, she decided to stick with the Jaguars.
After a 21-6 season and falling one win shy of the state tournament, Gillispie had every intention of becoming more of a focal point for Westmoore.
But everything changed when Westmoore coach Andrea Guziec resigned.
“We had a good bond,” Gillispie said.
When Guziec left, so did Gillispie.
She transferred to Norman, and while she didn’t arrive as a household name, she quickly became one. The sophomore thrived in the Tigers' offense, tallying 22 points and 13 rebounds a game and leading Norman to the 2019 Class 6A state championship title.
She played some of her best ball on the biggest stage, recording three double-doubles in the state tournament and finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds in the championship game.
“She was far more determined than any sophomore that I’ve been around,” Norman coach Michael Neal said. “She had a great work ethic behind her because her mom and dad instilled that within her.
“If you see Kendra and you don’t know anything about her, you just think she’s just a post player who’s just going to live in the paint and impose her will that way. That’s not the case. She did a great job at that, but she shot the 3 well, she put it on the floor and then she guarded guards. She got out there and moved with them, and that just goes to show her skill set.”
Her performance that year not only won a state title but also put Gillispie on the national scene. She was tabbed as the No. 31 recruit in ESPN’s national rankings for the Class of 2021.
And four months after winning that state title, Gillispie committed to Ole Miss. The decision allowed the rising junior to rest her mind on her recruiting process and focus on bringing Norman another state championship.
At least that was the plan.
Shortly after Gillispie committed, her mother, Latesha Woods, accepted the head coaching position at Harding Charter. Citing the benefits the school offered in preparing her for college, Gillispie transferred to her third school in three years.
But before Gillispie could lead her new team, she was hit with another setback.
“I knew I was hurt because I couldn’t run,” Gillispie said. “I told my mom I couldn’t bend my leg.”
An MRI revealed she had slightly torn the posterolateral corner ligament in her knee during a scrimmage two weeks before the season. She wouldn’t be able to play for four months and didn’t make her Harding Prep debut until the postseason.
“I had to limit myself in the playoffs because I didn’t want to injure it anymore,” Gillispie said. “But I had to work twice as hard because my speed was just awful, and my change of direction was kind of hard to do.”
Harding Charter fell in the area tournament, ending a promising 22-8 season without a state tournament appearance.
Adding to that disappointment was a coaching change at Ole Miss. Gillispie knew her experience wouldn’t be the same, so last April, she pulled her commitment.
“I was kind of scared at the time because I was still injured and then COVID happened,” Gillispie said. “So, I was like, ‘What if I don’t get a chance to play?’”
But last summer, Gillispie found her way back onto the court. She played with AAU teams OKC Lions Elite and Jason Terry Lady Jets. Fully recovered, Gillispie turned heads and earned more college offers.
She committed to Marquette in October with a near 2-minute-and-30-second video. She made sure to include clips of her father.
He was labeled “guardian angel.”
Kendra Gillispie has long worn No. 23.
It was her mom’s number.
But this year, she is wearing No. 25, her dad’s old football number.
“Just having to put the jersey on is tough,” her mother said. “I lost both of my parents, so I know I relate well. I lost my dad when I was a freshman in college. So it’s not a ‘getting over it.’ It’s getting through it as everybody else's world continues to go when your world seems like it’s stopping.
“I just try to let her know that I’m here, and he ain’t ever going to be forgotten.”
Gillispie’s season of gratitude and remembrance has been one of her best. She is averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds while leading Harding Charter to a 12-4 record, including an undefeated run through the Carl Albert "Titan Classic'' recently.
But she wants more.
Devin Gillispie’s death is why through all of the school changes, the recruitment process and goal of turning around a downtrodden program, she is motivated to accomplish more.
“She’s had a lot for her age and she’s pushing,” her mom said. “She’s pushing like a freight train, so you better move out the way.”