MERIDIAN — At first glance, it looks like a headband.

Holly Golenor wishes that were the case.

The Cole Valley Christian girls basketball player wears specialized headgear The senior forward is required to wear it because of a heart surgery she had at the age of 9.

While the black headgear, which circles from the front to the back of her head, has been down right uncomfortable and caused a lot of self-doubt at times, it ended up making her a much stronger person. Golenor will wear her signature headgear one final time at this week’s 2A State Girls Basketball Tournament at Kuna High.

“I feel like I’ve really found myself again,” Golenor said. “I proved myself wrong in a lot of ways. I felt like I couldn’t do things but my teammates, coaches and family instilled that confidence in me that I could again. I’ve just felt free this year and it’s been really fun.”

FROM SIMPLE TO COMPLICATED: It started with a simple bacterial infection — strep throat.

Only Golenor and her family didn’t know she had it. That’s because she displayed none of the common signs.

Instead she complained of back pain, fatigue and that her tongue was numb.

“That was the last straw,” father Rick Golenor said. “We didn’t know what the heck was going on.”

So Golenor was taken to St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in late February. The doctors there didn’t exactly know what was going on so they referred the family to a kidney specialist.

The kidney specialist then determined there was no problem but did detect a heart murmur. Finally after going back and forth for days, a cardiologist informed them that Golenor had a major heart problem.

The untreated strep throat had turned into a rheumatic fever. According to WebMd, it’s something that occurs in less than 0.3 percent of all cases.

Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease that can scar the valves of the heart.

With no specialist on hand, Golenor was immediately flown to the Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

“I was told I had an hour to go home and pack my bags,” Rick said. “I got back just in time to get on the ambulance with her and head to the airport.

“The plane literally only had room for the pilot, co-pilot, a stretcher and a nurse.”

But upon her arrival, the doctors didn’t take immediate action. They wanted to wait for the inflammation in her heart to go down before operating.

However, time wasn’t on their side.

Golenor was getting worse by the second. She got so bad that she wasn’t sleeping and water was backing into her lungs and liver.

So after five days, the doctors couldn’t wait any longer.

They went in and repaired three of her valves.

“I remember sitting there right before and them giving me this medicine that is going to make me pass out. I was like ‘I’m not going to pass out. You can’t get me to fall asleep,’” laughed Golenor. “But then I was just out.

“The next thing I remember is waking up and asking my dad ‘Can I get breakfast?’ He said ‘Holly it’s the middle of the night.’”

A couple days later Golenor returned home thinking the worst was over.

SURGERY TAKE TWO: Golenor looked as if she was in the clear. She had good checkups for the last five months.

But then came her monthly checkup in August.

During the visit, the doctor noticed there was too much leakage and backflow in the mitral valve of her heart. So Golenor and her family headed up north to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital in Spokane for a second heart surgery.

But the surgery didn’t go exactly as planned.

The doctors tried to repair her mitral valve but couldn’t. They would have had to cinch it down and that would have created too much pressure. So they put an artificial valve in instead.

A couple days later, Golenor started school.

“She doesn’t give up,” senior Sarah Kazarinoff said. “There are some days where you can tell she is kind of down, but she never quits. She keeps going and it’s something that’s so inspiring to see.”

HERE COMES THE HEADGEAR: For about eight years it almost seemed like nothing happened. Golenor had no restrictions following her two heart surgeries and turned into a star on the basketball court as a result.

She started as a freshman on the Cole Valley Christian girl’s varsity team. That season Golenor helped the Chargers claim the 2A Western Idaho Conference and 2A District III Championships, along with assisting in a consolation state title. Golenor was then selected to the 2A All-WIC first-team at the end of the season.

For an encore, Cole Valley Christian won its second straight 2A WIC and state consolation titles. Golenor was also named the league’s player of the year.

But all of that was nearly taken away.

Right before the start of her junior season, Golenor’s cardiologist was uncomfortable with her playing basketball anymore. The cardiologist became concerned after reading several medical journals regarding athletes on blood thinners.

“I cried a lot,” Golenor said. “I was questioning why this is happening to me? All I had ever really done was basketball since I was 8 and I didn’t want this to be the end because I felt like I was really finding myself as a player.”

But after several extensive conversations with her doctor, an agreement was made. Golenor would be allowed to continuing playing if she wore protective headgear.

“They first suggested a hard head helmet,” Golenor laughed. “Like one of those skateboarding helmets or something. I was like ‘no I don’t think I can wear that.’

“We looked around and found one up to their satisfaction.”

While the headgear offered her adequate protection, it didn’t guard her from other things.

The headgear was uncomfortable and made her sweat profusely. But that ended up being the least of her problems.

Golenor got several looks from coaches, players and fans alike. She also overheard opposing players and fans make fun of her.

“My self-confidence was at an all-time low,” Golenor said. “My headgear was different and I didn’t like the way I looked with it on. I didn’t like the looks and comments I was getting either.”

GETTING USED TO IT: Golenor traded in her bulky headgear this season for a much smaller one. The difference has not only improved her play, but more importantly her self-confidence.

With a newfound belief in herself again, she and the Chargers have been on a tear this season. Golenor is nearly averaging a double-double with 12.7 points and 9.7 boards per game.

Her play has Cole Valley Christian in state for the fifth straight season and ranked No. 5 in the state in the 2A classification in the final state media poll of the season.

“It was special to see her perseverance and her ability to take things in stride and not even think twice about it,” Cole Valley Christian coach Stu Sells said. “She just went out there and was a great player and teammate.

“For me it’s a lot more emotional because you don’t realize until you get in that environment what kids go through. So for her to have this and actually treat it like it’s nothing is just incredible. She just embraces life. Everything that she’s done and taken on you wouldn’t even know it’s something she thinks about.”

The Chargers are going to need more of the same from Golenor this week as they look to navigate through a tough bracket. Cole Valley Christian opens up against a St. Maries team that has won seven out of its last eight games. Either the defending state runner-up Malad or the reining state champion Ririe will await in the semis.

Assuming they get that far, a championship matchup against Soda Springs, who is on a 23-game winning streak or No. 1 and undefeated Melba (24-0) could be in the cards for the Chargers.

Cole Valley Christian knows the Mustangs all too well. The Chargers are 0-3 against the Mustangs this season. They have lost those games by more than 16 points per game.

“She brings energy to us for sure,” senior Ace Hahs said. “Every time we play she is a constant beast and is just relentless with the way she controls the ball. She is going to huge in determining just how far we go.”

A WINNER EITHER WAY: While Golenor would love to get an opportunity to play college basketball somewhere, she knows with her condition this may be it for her.

So she plans to make the most of these final three days. Although a state championship would be a nice thing for her to hang her hat on, in her mind, she’s already won — headgear and all.

“I would love to go out in a bang,” Golenor said. “But wherever we go and however far we get is a success in my book because this team is my family. They have gotten me through a lot of tough times so I love them to death. So just to play a few more final games with them is all I could ever ask for.”

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