Jan. 7 started as a normal Friday, and the Delran High School girls basketball team’s sixth game of the season was coming up that evening.
The Bears had just dropped their first game of the season two days before, a 37-36 loss to Burlington Township. But unbeknownst to the players, Friday’s game ended up meaning much more.
That morning, senior point guard Mason Williams, one of the stars of the school’s boys basketball team, tragically took his own life. The girls’ team didn’t find out until just before tipoff on that January evening.
“It wasn’t real,” rising senior Riley Ahrens said. “Nothing felt real. You don’t realize how quickly things can change and how you don’t realize what people are going through, even when you see them in the hallways every day.
“I was just in shock.”
But there was still a game to play, so the girls’ team fought through tears that day, starting before the matchup in the locker room. They still had a job to do on the court, and they dominated, defeating Paulsboro on the road, 48-30.
Ahrens in particular had one of her best games of the year, scoring 19 points.
After an emotional night, the Bears sought ways to honor Williams, and Ahrens was at the forefront of the effort.
“She took initiative,” said Riley’s mother, Marianne. “When I saw how much it affected her, it concerned me, but what I enjoyed was seeing her get the team together and decide that they would do something in honor of Mason.”
Ahrens and a few of her teammates – including rising sophomore guard Molly Frith – met with school officials, and from that came a number of initiatives. T-shirts were distributed with the phrase, “It’s okay to not be okay,” in bold lettering on the back.
The team held a moment of silence at center court and teams joined hands at a later game in January. The Bears continued to highlight mental-health awareness and other issues.
Eventually a memorial for Williams was set up at the end of Delran’s bench and other tributes were created in the school in the following days and weeks.
“I’m a born-and-raised Delran guy, and the bringing together of the community for such a tragic event made me love the town I come from,” said Delran girls basketball coach Jon Repece.
The Bears played five games in eight days from Jan. 7 to 15, but they remained resilient and won four of them. Delran ended up finishing with a 20-8 record on the year, though they lost in the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 playoffs.
At the center of that was Ahrens, the first junior team captain under the longstanding tenure of former coach Pete Miles. Dealing with her own mental- health struggles, she continued to lead the team to success, pushing her teammates on.
“Riley’s a very caring person,” Miles noted. “I think there’s an awareness in her about other people around her in general. This was just something that intensified with her.”
In a time of grief and sorrow, Ahrens made sure to prioritize her mental health as she played either softball or basketball. But she found that taking a mental break from sports helped to clear her head.
“It took me a minute to just realize that it wasn’t about me not wanting to put in the effort or being lazy, I just mentally couldn’t,” Ahrens acknowledged. “I needed to get myself under control first and realize that life isn’t all basketball. There’s more to it and it’s okay to not want to be there all of the time.
“It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to relax.”
Williams’ death not only opened Ahrens’ eyes but those of her teammates and the community to the importance of asking for help. It also brought the girls’ and boys’ basketball programs closer as they honored Williams by finishing the season strong.
Jan. 7 was anything but normal, but the date will remind people in Delran that it’s okay not to okay.