How much can one kid handle?
If you’re Mihjae Hayes, there’s really no way to measure the amount of loss she’s experienced over the last year.
First her brother. Then, six months later, her sister. Two of her best friends were taken away. Somehow, the Neumann-Goretti High School senior basketball player has carried on bravely and remarkably.
“It was kind of hard in the beginning,” Hayes said. “But I’m just using it as motivation now because, in my mind, I just do everything for them. That’s the only way it can be. I just need to keep going hard and I know I’ll make them proud.”
Hayes’ sister Ojanae Tamia Thompson was 19 when she and Khyrie Isaac were shot in mid-August in a parking lot in the Olney section of Philadelphia near where Hayes’ family lives. Issac died at the hospital that day while Thompson fought for more than two weeks before succumbing to her injuries.
The senseless killing came about six months after a family tragedy when Hayes’ brother AJ died from what she called a bad drug that caused brain damage. The family was still in shock and grief from AJ’s death when Ojanae was murdered.
Hayes has managed to keep it all together, relying on her family, her coaches and basketball teammates to get her through the darkest time of her life. Saints coach Andrea Peterson has been amazed at the way Hayes has handled the last year.
“It’s been very tough,” Peterson said. “I don’t think many adults could deal with what this young lady has been through and what she continues to do day in and day out. Sometimes as people, you forget that everyone shows their emotions differently. This kid shows up every day, never misses practice, never misses school. She puts in the work and to know what she went through and to have that in the back of her head is pretty incredible.”
On the basketball court, things are much easier for Hayes, as the game plays to her. Although only 5 feet 3, Hayes’ speed and ball-handling ability give her the option to score at will, like she did in scoring a career-high 36 points against Monsignor Scanlon High School of New York on Dec. 22. In doing so, she recorded her 1,000th career point. She matched that effort with 36 points against Conwell-Egan in a key Philadelphia Catholic League game on Feb. 7 in which the Saints won, 80-44.
Hayes says her motivation to score and win are at an all-time high as she plays for the memory of her siblings.
“Not to be cocky, but I have a statement to prove,” Hayes said with a satisfied smile. “I’ve been an underdog. I’m just playing my game how I know how to play and let the game come to me. I guess 36 points is what it is.”
Hayes is still waiting on a Division I offer to follow the footsteps of so many great Neumann-Goretti players before her. It’s another thing that has weighed on her mind but she knows the patience will pay off.
“It’s cool. I feel like it should have come sooner but only time will tell,” Hayes said. “I keep playing the waiting game but I’ll do what I have to do.”
It gives her even more motivation. That and the strong support of her teammates and coaching staff have made Hayes an unstoppable figure. They show their support each game by warming up in purple shirts with AJ and Ojanae’s name on their backs. “Forever in our hearts” is written across the front.
“We just wanted to honor the family,” Peterson said. “I can’t imagine what mom and dad are going through, not only losing one child, but losing two and (Mihjae) losing two of her best friends in a matter of six months apart.”
The message wasn’t lost on Hayes.
“It’s really special,” Hayes said. “Going through what I’m going through, I need people that I love to be around me. And just to see the continuous support of them being there for me. Before the season started, I said we’re going to do this for my brother and sister and they haven’t let me down. I’m grateful for each and every one of them, coaches and players.”
Peterson, especially, has lent support when needed to Hayes.
“She’s been there from the jump,” Hayes said. “She’s been at every event. She told me if there’s anything I need, she’s got me. Even though she’s my coach, she’s a great person. I really love coach Peterson.”
Neumann-Goretti is navigating the toughest part of its schedule, as the Saints were forced to play all 10 of their PCL games in a stretch of 19 days. They were 5-4 in league games through Feb. 10. The Saints are the fifth seed in the Philadelphia CAtholic League playoffs and will face Lansdale Catholic in the quarterfinal round.
Hayes’ parents will be at that game like they have at all of her other contests, cheering her on and giving support from the bleachers.
“It’s amazing because a lot of kids don’t have the opportunity for their mom and dad to show up to every game,” Hayes said. “My mom and dad are there every game and continuously talking to me on the sidelines. They keep me going when I start struggling. We’re sticking together because we’re going through so much right now.”