COLUMBIA — On a brisk Sunday evening, the Corpenings gather in their living room before their weekly family dinner. It’s the one meal they don’t miss.
Family portraits cover the off-white walls of their eastern Columbia home. A chestnut coffee table in the middle of the room has six framed photographs of family members atop a lace doily, the only open space taken up by a small, glass cross.
Aqua Corpening, a 17-year-old senior on the Hickman girls basketball team, is slumped on the sofa. Her braided hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, a white headband framing her face. She has one ear bud in, hip-hop music barely audible through the bud that dangles freely.
Corpening carefully selects songs from her iTunes to put on a pump-up CD for Hickman’s opening home game against Waynesville the next day. Her head bobs rapidly when she comes across one she likes.
This season is especially important to the Corpenings because it’s the last time Aqua Corpening will play at Hickman. Next fall, she will live 90 miles north in Kirksville and play basketball on a full scholarship for the Truman State Bulldogs.
If you ask her, the free tuition was just a bonus. A location close enough for her family to come see her play was the biggest benefit.
“The family gets excited when basketball season come around,” Aqua’s oldest sister, Antoinette (Annie) Corpening, said. “It gives us something to look forward to.”
Basketball has always played a major role in the Corpenings' lives.
Paul Corpening, Aqua’s father, works as a referee for college and high school basketball. He took all three of his daughters to games when they were young.
Aqua Corpening was 6 when she started going to games with her dad. While her older sisters kept score, she wouldn’t stay off of the court.
“Guys coaching would always tell me someday she’s going to be able to play, and we just went along with that,” Paul Corpening said.
Aqua Corpening’s older sister, Paulette Corpening, was the first of the daughters to play basketball in high school. From her freshman to junior year she played for the Kewpies under coach Tonya Mirts, who now coaches Aqua Corpening.
“I always told her to go farther than I did,” Paulette Corpening said.
In her junior year, Paulette Corpening quit basketball to have her own daughter, Detrianna Jamison.
Now 8, Detrianna looks up to Aqua Corpening as a role model.
“She wants to be just like her Auntie Aquantta,” Paulette Corpening teased.
Although her demeanor is shy on this day, Detrianna can’t help but get excited when she watches Aqua Corpening play.
“She tries to sit there and act like she’s not paying attention,” Aqua Corpening said, smiling. “But I catch her up there doing her cheerleader moves sometimes.”
Having her family in the stands to support and cheer for her makes a big impact on Aqua Corpening during the games.
When her teammate Jade Holly suffered a torn ACL in her knee last year, there was a lot of pressure on Aqua Corpening. The season dragged on, and there was a moment when she wanted to give it all up.
“There were a couple games in a row when no one from my family was able to make it, and that really brought me down, too,” she said.
After talking to their bosses, both her parents and her sisters were able to alter their schedules so they could be at Aqua Corpening’s games.
Then her father sat her down and told her to fight it out.
“I just told her, ‘Nope, you can’t quit. You are not a quitter,’” Paul Corpening said. “She stuck with it and because she went back and finished the season she was blessed by making All-State as a junior.”
“She didn’t only earn All-State, she earned that full-ride scholarship,” Antoinette Corpening added.
The All-State/All-District recognition only begins the long list of awards Aqua Corpening has received over the years. In her room alone, there are 44 basketball medallions hanging up. The space left over is filled with MU basketball team posters and a self-portrait watercolor of her in her jersey that she painted in middle school. There’s a mini basketball hoop taped to the wall, and a bin full of basketballs and her team bag take up most of the floor.
Aqua’s mother, Sherry Corpening, sits on the ground and goes through a manila envelope of article clippings and award certificates. She is eager to show off her daughter, who has maintained a 3.8 grade point average through high school.
Aqua Corpening’s family has saved all the clippings for a senior scrapbook at graduation. Sherry Corpening produces one from a game during Aqua Corpening’s sophomore year when she made a half-court shot to tie her team at the half.
“I was up off the bleachers!” Paulette Corpening shouted. “Oh, we get rowdy.”
Paul Corpening hangs his head.
“I won’t sit with them,” he said as the family laughs and his wife teases him for being embarrassed.
Paulette Corpening said most of the referees know about her family. They know they’ll be watching and if they make a bad call they will hear it.
“We are true fans of Aquantta,” Antoinette Corpening said.
The family continues to reminisce about games and traveling together to see Aqua Corpening at tournaments. One can only wonder what will happen to the tight-knit group if she lands her dream career as a WNBA player.
“I’ll bring my family with me,” Aqua Corpening said without hesitation. “Maybe my sisters will have a room in my house — who knows?”
“You can give me my own house,” Paulette Corpening snapped back as the family joins in another round of laughter.
Still smiling, Aqua Corpening’s expression becomes thoughtful as she gazes at the wall of family portraits before her.
“I don’t think there’s one word that can describe my family,” she said.
“Well I’ve got three,” Paulette Corpening chimed in. “Lean on us.”