Not too long ago, one could walk into the women’s basketball office and be greeted by the smiles of the late coach Robert McGraw and coach Chenara Wilson. It did not matter what was going on that day– both could be found together cracking jokes.
It became commonplace for McGraw and Wilson to shoot back jabs at each other about random things, whether it was Wilson’s fandom of the Cleveland Browns and other Cleveland teams or anything else.
Being from Cleveland, one learns a lot about commitment and what it means to stick by someone’s side.
“Dealing with the Browns, you’ve gotta be all in…but being a part of what they call mistake on the lake and having our teams’ be so up and down, you can imagine what that championship in 2016 felt like,” Wilson said.
Cleveland is who Wilson is. Now, though, she has also become fully immersed as a big part of Slippery Rock.
A little under a year after McGraw’s passing, Wilson now sits in the seat that he sat in during those light-hearted arguments. The promotion is one that came under the worst circumstances possible, but Wilson took everything in stride and through it all was able to help lead The Rock to do some things they had not accomplished in a long time.
“I’ve been coaching for 10 plus years now, I’ve had the role of being both a head coach and as assistant at both [junior college] and Div. II,” Wilson said.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she would have to lead an entire team through this past season, however.
When Wilson first arrived on campus in 2017, things were much different. Wilson had just come from a school called Mercyhurst North East where she had led the school to a 49-34 record over three years.
The Rock was in a place of still trying to figure things out back in 2017-18 when Wilson got here. McGraw had only made the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) tournament once in his first three years as head coach. In Wilson’s first season on campus, the team made their return to the PSAC tournament.
Wilson knew that she wanted to stick around. Slippery Rock immediately made her feel at home.
“Slippery Rock is just a good place, the atmosphere and the student support that we get is just always great to have,” Wilson said. “It’s nice to have fans, especially when you’re the [Indiana University of Pennsylvania] IUPs of the world.”
In the few years she had with McGraw, she spent time with someone who was more than just her colleague. They were really good friends, and she learned so much from him.
“He was a very energetic guy and always into the athletes and the program, so that was something that was good to be around and be behind,” Wilson said. “You really got a feel for what it was like to be for your team.”
The biggest lesson she took away from McGraw was the need to be there for the student-athletes.
“Just being there for you student-athletes, knowing that some of them are an hour away versus five hours away,” Wilson said. “Being there for them outside of basketball is important, and he really taught me to just genuinely be there for them.”
A lot has changed since she got here. But the most difficult thing any coach on the Slippery Rock campus has had to do is lead a team after the death of someone that everyone was so close to.
Wilson did exactly that and exceeded all expectations for what the season should look like.
In an email, SRU APSCUF president Jason Hilton explained exactly that.
“Our great hope for Coach Chenara and her team was that they would be able to come together, care for and support one another throughout this year,” Hilton said. “Coach Chenara and her team went on to exceed every hope we had for them.”
It was already impressive that just a few months after the passing of McGraw, the team stepped onto the court to play their first game without him.
Wilson’s message to them was simple.
“I just wanted to kind of put it in their minds that no matter who we played against, we were going to compete,” Wilson said. “No matter who it is, no matter what’s going on, when it’s time to step onto the court we’re going to go out and compete.”
The team did just that and more. After dropping their first game to Lincoln University, The Rock went on a six-game winning streak. The push had them looking good early, but Wilson still had some goals set for them.
One of those goals was accomplished not once but twice. The goal was to finally take down IUP. McGraw came close a couple of times when he was at the helm but never beat the Crimson Hawks. One can only imagine what his reaction would have been after a series sweep.
“I don’t know which one was better, but they both felt great to accomplish, and that was one of our goals,” Wilson said. “No matter who the team is, every night you go out there, you can beat anybody and I think with that mentality we were able to reach that goal.”
The ultimate goal of reaching playoffs was not reached. Nonetheless, the year was a success. The Rock posted a 15-13 record, their best record since 2002. That was also the last time they had a winning season.
The season came down to the last couple of games, and if you put them in a couple of previous seasons, they are in the playoffs comfortably. But all that matters to Wilson is that she created change and helped everyone through such a tough time.
“Those accomplishments were great for us, especially under the circumstances, and like I said it just felt good to be a part of a team that was successful,” Wilson said. “Although we didn’t make playoffs, we accomplished our goals, so obviously you set the bar higher moving forward.”
Every player on the team and all who surrounded the program this past season made Wilson proud to be a part of the Slippery Rock family.
“I’m overly proud of them for just stepping up through those tragic times. I mean you just lose someone suddenly and having to make that adjustment, they were still able to excel not only on the basketball court but also in the classroom,” Wilson said. “To be able to do it on both ends really says a lot about them.”
Perhaps no one should be prouder than Wilson herself.
Now the process has begun for her to attempt to get the full-time head coaching job.
“The process started about a week ago, the job was posted, and I’ve applied,” Wilson said. “Obviously, hopefully, I will get interviewed and go through that process to get the job here.”
However, it goes much further than that. What Wilson was able to accomplish is something that some people can only dream of. Wilson took The Rock Women’s Basketball team and brought a new style and a bit of a culture update through tragedy.
Posting 15 wins in her first season is a game changer, but now she will look to lock down the job and drop “acting” from the head coach title. She has a whole campus behind her and students and faculty alike rooting for her no matter what happens. That means the world to her.
“It definitely was a good feeling knowing that people support you, especially on a college campus,” Wilson said. “But rooting for you specifically means a lot, and even if I don’t get the job, the experience was great.”
One thing is clear, she wants to be back and have the opportunity to continue what McGraw started back in 2014. Her journey is one that everyone can look up to, and her message to young people is a simple one.
“Just stick with it, if it’s something you really have interest in, then learn about it so you’re prepared,” Wilson said. “You can never stop learning basketball, it doesn’t matter what level you’re at.”