Keenan Coley

Oxford Prep basketball player Keenan Coley (center) formally signed his letter of intent to play for Warren Wilson College starting in the winter. Coley missed his entire junior season due to a lingering knee injury but rebounded to become a valuable contributor for the program during his final year. Front row, from left, are Kayla Carter, Katie Carter, Keenan Coley and Stacey Coley, Al Coley. Back row, from left, are Teresa Jeralds, Nick Gambill, Charity New, and Jacob Jeralds.

OXFORD — Two years ago, Oxford Prep senior Keenan Coley was unsure if he would be able to continue his basketball career due to a knee injury that would sideline him his junior season.

An endless amount of rehab and determination for Keenan paid off Saturday afternoon when he signed his letter of intent to play for Warren Wilson College in front of his family, friends and teachers.

Keenan said the amount of adversity he had to overcome during the last couple of years was relentless but he was not going to let an injury or a global pandemic get in the way of him accomplishing his dream.

“I never folded,” Coley said. “With a lot of different things going on at the beginning of the season, I had no idea where I was going to be at. For it to end like this and to play basketball at a Division III school, it means the world to me.”

Keenan credits his father, Al, for getting him invested in basketball when he was just 4 years old. What started as simple shootarounds with Al gradually developed into a passion for Keenan that motivated him to start competing on a regular basis.

A part of the training process for Keenan involved constantly watching basketball games on television and embodying the morals and philosophies that propelled his favorite player in LeBron James to so much success during his career.

Everything initially proceeded as planned for Keenan. He put in the necessary effort to refine his game on both ends of the floor and was ready to step up as a valuable contributor for Oxford Prep ahead of the 2019-20 season.

One thing that Keenan said held him back from being more explosive was his left knee locking up on him while trying to jump. This ended up becoming a problem for him in the summer of 2019 when the same knee swelled up significantly during a practice.

Keenan would eventually be diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, which develops in the joints of children and young adults. It occurs when a small segment of bone separates from its surrounding region due to a lack of blood supply.

Keenan believed that the injury would only sideline him for six weeks in the 2019-20 season but a second opinion encouraged Keenan to have surgery on his left knee, which he believed was the right long-term decision at the expense of his junior year.

“This was something that could have turned into a lot of problems at an older age like arthritis,” Keenan said. “It was good to get the knee cleaned up and everything. It sucks that I missed my junior year but everything happens for a reason.”

What followed was a lengthy recovery process that saw Keenan work closely with Oxford Prep’s athletic trainer and the Henderson Wellness Center to ensure that his left knee would be ready to go for his final season at the school.

During his rehab, Keenan maintained a constant presence on the sideline talking with his teammates and encouraging them to stay strong and get better. The program accumulated a 3-23 record without Keenan on the floor but bounced back the following year to finish 5-6 with Keenan back in the active rotation.

Oxford Prep athletic director and men’s basketball coach Leo Brunelli said that Keenan had to experience more than most athletes ever will during the last two years but added that his determination and knowledge on basketball is what separates him from others in his position.

“I knew Keenan was something special,” Brunelli said. “His leadership and his ability to see the court is like having another coach that can actually play. Warren Wilson is getting a true guard that will grow and expand. I think we scraped this surface with Keenan. He still has a lot of upside.”

Keenan’s mother Stacey Coley vividly remembers how many different treatments Keenan tried while sidelined during his junior season just to get back on the court and praised her son for not giving up even when he dealt with setbacks like the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Stacey has no doubts that Keenan will find success on Warren Wilson’s basketball program, she affirmed that her son’s desire to help other people will be a great quality for him to have in life regardless of what career path he chooses to take.

“Keenan is not just a good person on the court, he’s a good person off the court,” Stacey said. “I don’t know which came first but whatever the case is, it’s made for a wonderful combination. Even if he wasn’t mine, he’s just a really neat person to know because he cares about others. He knew that he had to rely on the other four players on the court as well as the coach.”

Keenan admitted that he wants to be remembered for something other than basketball and intends to major in psychology so he can assist other people with their mental health, which was the central focus of his senior project at Oxford Prep.

With his career outlined both on and off the court, Keenan said that committing to Warren Wilson was one of the easiest decisions that he has to make during the last two years and is looking forward to focusing on his major and building on the momentum from the program’s conference title this year.

“Warren Wilson is the best college on Earth,” Keenan said. “They’ve been loyal this whole time. They were here before the knee injury and were recruiting me after surgery even when a lot of other schools stopped talking to me. They never went away and the communication has been great and with the way their work program is, I can still affect the community in ways that I want to.”

Keenan credited the staff at Oxford Prep for helping him explore his creativity and plans to remember those interactions as he strives to positively impact the world in his own way.