'I had the will to win': Hours after father's funeral, teen leads basketball team to victory

TJ Mullinax / Today
W.F. West's Julie Spencer high-fives coach Jack State after the team's girls' 2A basketball championship win over Mark Morris on March 8 in Yakima, Wash.

On Saturday morning, 17-year-old Julie Spencer woke up early to sing at her father’s funeral in Toledo, Wash. — a request he made during his nearly year-long battle with skin cancer. Just hours after lowering him into the ground, the high school junior performed one more act in her dad’s honor: helping her W.F. West basketball teammates win a state championship game.

“I had the will to win,” Spencer told “I went out like I’m going to do this for my dad, and we’re going to do this as a team.”

The 6-foot-2 student played an “unbelievable” game, scoring 20 points and taking the MVP tournament title. The final score between W.F. West and Mark Morris, last year’s championship winner, was 48 to 37.

“She had a magical day on the basketball court,” W. F. West head basketball coach Henri Weeks said.

Spencer said she was playing hard for the people she loves, especially her father, the man who taught her how to play the game and was her "biggest fan and biggest critic." After finally defeating Mark Morris, she says a "peace" washed over her.

“It meant everything to me," she said. "Not very many people get to live that dream going to play in a state championship game. It was really important to me, right alongside celebrating my dad's life.”

Julie with her father, James Spencer.

Only a week ago, Spencer wasn’t so sure she would make it to the class 2A girl's state championship game — if her team made it that far in the tournament at all. The funeral service for her father, James Spencer, was arranged for 11 a.m. in a town on the west side of Washington, at least a 3-hour drive away from the Yakima Valley SunDome where the girls would have to play the final game at 5 p.m.

For three weeks, coach Weeks had been trying to find a way to fly Spencer — one of his best players — from the funeral to the game, but no one in town owned a plane capable of making the flight. That's when he decided to share the story with a Seattle radio host and fellow girls basketball coach, who agreed to interview Spencer on the air last Tuesday. Almost immediately, the station received calls from residents eager to help.

“The response was overwhelming,” Weeks said.

TJ Mullinax / Today
Spencer (23) runs to the bench as time expires in the girls' 2A state basketball championship game. The two teams met in the final round last year as well.

Despite all the offers, he was still nervous about putting Spencer on a private plane, so he called up the president of Kenmore Air, a local carrier, who agreed to give her a lift. On the day of the funeral, Spencer flew to the game in an eight-seat plane with a good friend and three of her nine siblings.

Spencer had little over an hour to get dressed and warm-up before game time. In a show of support, her teammates wrote her father's date of birth on their wrists while getting ready.

"They helped me through everything," Spencer said.

Just before the start of the game, Spencer warned coach Weeks that given the circumstances, she might have to be substituted more often than usual. But it turned out to be the opposite.

“She went out and ran off seven points in the first quarter,” assistant coach Jack State told “It was almost like she didn’t need any breaks. She performed at a really high level.”

Julie's dad passed away on Feb. 13 from skin cancer.

When Spencer walked onto the court, all the stress from the week before melted away as she focused on playing ball.

“After such a stressful week, I could go out and do the thing I know how to do, which is play basketball,” she said.

Though still a junior, Spencer has already been offered a scholarship to play Division 1 basketball at Washington University. And she's not only sharp on the court: Spencer is a good student and popular among her peers. Her coaches say they are inspired by how she's overcome challenges in life with grace and humility.

"She's a very responsible, very fun kid to be around," Weeks said. "She’s mature beyond her age."