NORMAL — After a fourth-place finish in the girls basketball Class 1A state tournament, Hope Ruppert changed clothes and marched in the stands to celebrate the season, where she found her parents, Joel and Jeannie, waiting for her like they always have.
With them was the best one-and-a-half-year-old cheerleader Hope could have asked for — her son, Ren Ruppert.
Hope got pregnant as a 16-year-old sophomore, but hiding her son from the world and keeping her story a secret isn't who she is.
“I have my parents to thank for continuing to tell me, ‘Hope, you can do it. There are so many people out there who have had the same or bigger obstacles and they do it' I really took that and ran with it," said Hope, now an 18-year old senior.
Ruppert played a big role in leading Okaw Valley to its first state appearance ever, and Ren was there every step of the way. He spent most of the weekend at state in the hotel hanging out with the team, fueling up on Gatorade and more attention then he bargained for.
“Whether I win or lose, I like to think I always win," Hope said. "I leave the court and I have the most beautiful son. Even if we do lose, he’s always such a comfort. It makes me feel better to hold him or hug him."
Being a mother as a high school student isn't easy, but she's dedicated, and she has help.
Okaw Valley faculty came to her house after she delivered Ren to keep her on track at school and have helped work out a schedule that is conducive to being a parent. She's earned National Honors Society recognition, and on the court she was one of the team's top defensive players.
“It was crazy running from home to practice to home and trying to be a full-time mom and a full-time student and basketball player," Ruppert said. "I don’t know how I made it work. Today, I still don’t know how."
Ruppert gets plenty of help from her parents, who watch Ren as needed and hold their cheering grandson in the stands during games, and also from Ren's father, Cory Walker.
“We support her, but she’s the one who has gotten up with him at night, and she’s the one who takes him to every doctor’s visit," Jeannie said. "She’s a fantastic mom."
When Ruppert found out she was pregnant, basketball seemed like a far-off dream. In an instant, the bond and chemistry she was building with fellow seniors Paige Robinson and Natalie Jeffers looked to be coming to a screeching halt.
“That was a big curveball," Rupert said. "I definitely thought basketball was over for me. I was telling everyone that I was done and I’m not playing."
Hope and her parents had a meeting with the team to tell them that Hope was pregnant. Instead of the jeers and snide remarks Hope feared, the team embraced her.
“'We support you Hope,'" Ruppert said of her team's response to the news. "'We’re here for you.' Having a team that is so supportive behind you in such a big way, we’re all teenage girls, that’s something big for us.
"The fact of how mature everyone took it, it was definitely an easy choice for me to make to come back out."
Initially, Hope was too nervous to tell many people she was pregnant. She kept it a secret from most until a month away from delivery. But the support and help she's received made all the worrying go away.
"I was so worried about what everyone else was going to say or what they were going to do or make fun of me," said Ruppert. "After it was all in I was like, 'Why did I get so stressed about this?' My community loves me, my community supports me, they went far beyond my expectations of support and love."
Hope played while pregnant for three months, and Ren has attended practices where he proudly displayed his own basketball and has learned to tune out the noise of the game, even as the noise got loud with the Okaw Valley communities supporting the Lady Timberwolves during their state tournament run.
“He loves to watch," Joel said. "He's most relaxed and chilled watching the game. You would think for a toddler, when they see their mom (they would want to be with her), but he's like, 'That's where she's supposed to be.'
"He fell asleep and someone asked, ‘Is it too loud for him?’ We said, ‘No, this is how he grew up. He loves this.’"