High School Sports

Circle’s Cal Hartley rises to the occasion as undersized basketball standout

Circle senior Cal Hartley, center, gathers with his team before practice Wednesday in Towanda. Hartley is averaging 25 points to lead the Thunderbirds.
Circle senior Cal Hartley, center, gathers with his team before practice Wednesday in Towanda. Hartley is averaging 25 points to lead the Thunderbirds. The Wichita Eagle

People have been telling Cal Hartley what he can’t do on a basketball court his entire life.

He has always been the smallest player on his team and the doubt generated by that small stature has followed him better than any defender.

Even though he has led Circle in scoring for three straight seasons, upped his scoring average to 25 points in his senior season, and scored more than 1,000 points in his career, Hartley (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) said he has not talked to a single Division I coach.

Hartley feels overlooked, but he doesn’t play with the fiery intensity of someone who has been slighted. His game is steady and measured with the confidence of someone who knows his situation will work out.

“I feel like I’m that way because of my sisters (Lola and Claire),” Hartley said. “They’ve been going against the odds their entire lives and it’s never bothered them. They’re still loving life and it’s motivated me to do the same thing. Whenever things are bad or I get frustrated, I think about them and that always pushes me through.”

▪  ▪  ▪ 

Cal was 2 when Claire was born and diagnosed with a severe case of microcephaly — a birth defect where the baby’s head is smaller than expected.

Doctors told the family she was not likely to live past one year. Five years later, Lola was born with the same condition and the same grim outlook.

Today Claire, 15, and Lola, 10, are healthy. While their conditions don’t allow them to walk or talk, Gwen and Scott Hartley say the girls are their source of strength.

“Once we were given that crappy prognosis, we all decided we were going to make the best of it,” Gwen said. “We were going to give them every opportunity to defy those odds. We really do believe they were born with a purpose and they are still going to do what they were put on this Earth to do and that’s to inspire others and give other people hope.”

But that doesn’t mean the “new normal,” as Scott calls it, is easy.

While both girls have microcephaly, each is different. Claire, at about 3 feet tall and 25 pounds, is a foot taller and 10 pounds heavier than her younger sister. Claire eats through a feeding tube, while Lola is able to eat by mouth.

“It was a scary time in the beginning with Claire because there was so much unknown,” Gwen said. “There were so many things we were unsure about, like their length of life. We had to think outside of the box because they didn’t fit into any kind of box. Nobody knew what to do with them or handle them, including us. We felt like we needed an instructional manual.”

Instead of worrying about the complications, the family learned to appreciate and embrace what made their situation special.

“Every family has something they have to deal with and this just happens to be our thing,” Scott said. “We love all of our kids just like any other parent would.”

This is the new normal for the Hartley family, something Cal says has made him a better person.

“We went through some hard times there at first adjusting, but over time we realized that (the girls) are great just the way they are,” Cal said. “They said they weren’t going to be able to walk or talk, but who knows what they’ll be able to do someday? I know we wouldn’t change a thing about them.”

▪  ▪  ▪ 

Cal’s first steps as a toddler were to dunk a basketball on a Fisher-Price goal.

Scott was a basketball player himself and loves that story. He spent hours with Cal every week grooming his game in those early years, harping to his son about mastering the fundamentals and falling in love with the process of improvement. One of his proudest moments came when Cal asked to take him to the gym — on Christmas Day.

“I’ve spent thousands of hours working on my shot and on my game,” Cal said. “There would be days I would be upset or frustrated, but my dad was always there pushing me to get better. He always motivated me and helped me focus on becoming a better player and I’m really glad he pushed me that way.”

Cal has the tools to be a point guard. He is capable of breaking down a defender and creating offense and playing the role of facilitator, but the best part of his game has always been his shooting.

Earlier this season, Cal broke Circle’s record for most three-pointers made (eight) and points (41) in an 89-73 win over Winfield.

“You can turn somebody into a good shooter with practice, but the great shooters are the ones where it just comes very natural to them and Cal is one of those people,” Scott Hartley said. “He can shooter the ball like I’ve never seen anybody shoot it.”

He also maintains a 4.0 grade-point average on top of being senior class president at Circle and a member of the National Honor Society.

“If you looked in the dictionary under the word ‘student-athlete,’ you would find Cal Hartley’s picture there,” Circle coach Bo Horyna said. “He’s not just a basketball player. He is the true definition of the word ‘student-athlete.’ 

Cal draws the opponent’s best defender. Some choose to face-guard him, while others try to bully him away from the ball, but only twice has he been held under 17 points.

Not bad for someone supposedly too small to score this much. Most of the recruiting interest has been from junior colleges and NAIA schools.

“It’s still surprising to me that he scores the way he does,” Scott Hartley said. “Going into this season, I was really worried about whether he could produce with the pressure he would see on defense. But the thing with Cal is he’s always going to find a way to rise to the occasion.”

▪  ▪  ▪ 

The entire Hartley family has risen to the occasion since Claire and Lola were born.

After facing so much uncertainty at the time of their births, Gwen and Scott marvel at where their family is 15 years later: Cal is playing the best basketball of his career, while Claire and Lola are achieving “inchstones,” as Gwen phrases it, on a weekly basis.

“They are just little things that probably wouldn’t seem like a big deal to someone else, but to us it’s a huge deal,” Gwen said. “I’m so proud of all three of our kids right now. They’re winners.”

“All three of our kids are just destroying right now,” said Scott, beaming with pride.

In their each way, the three Hartley children have all been told by others what they aren’t supposed to be able to do and all three have defied the odds their whole lives.

That’s just the new normal for Cal and his family.

“I think that’s the one thing that’s pretty universal in our family,” Scott said. “Cal has been told by coaches at the next level that he’s too small and he can’t do this or can’t do that. It’s been the same way with our girls. Everybody has always questioned what they can and can’t do and what they’ve all done is constantly rise to the occasion and prove everybody they’re wrong and I think that’s what Cal is going to do next.”

Taylor Eldridge: 316-268-6270, @vkeldridge