My apologies for not keeping up with the sports world these past few months. I have been coaching high school basketball. For those of you out there who love sports but have never really participated in them, you may want to get involved in some way. Coaching the varsity high school basketball team at Hope Christian Academy in Starke, FL this season was one of the best times I’ve had in sports.
As a sports writer and fan I have had the privilege of attending many major sports events over the years. I’ve seen a lot of great games and great performances over the years by many great athletes. While high school basketball at a small private school in a rural town may not qualify as great athletically, it did give me a chance to see what it takes to win.
From the first practice where the kids don’t know anything and the coaches don’t know the players, to making a championship run, so much happens in between.
Our team started practice with two players coming off of broken bones from football season. One of them was a senior starter who could not practice at all. One was a freshman who needed the practice because he was a pretty good athlete, but had never played basketball before.
We had two other seniors starting in the front court, both very good players. One was returning from last year’s team and the other transferred in from a local public school. Right before our first game, one for them severely sprained his ankle, sidelining him for the season opener. Then one of the first guys off the bench did some stupid thing that high school kids sometimes do, landing him in hot water with his grandfather. So we went into the season opener down two starters and two bench players.
Our first five game were road games. We went 3-1 despite not having our full roster healthy. The one loss was a one point loss one a buzzer beater and one games was cancelled at the last minute. We were about to board the bus when word came the home team had forgot about the game and therefore had no referees on the way. Welcome to small private school basketball.
Our home opener was against a team of home schoolers who do nothing but play basketball. It was our fifth game and this team was already playing their 19th game. They were very good and very well coached. We lost that game by 18 points mostly because our leading scorer fouled out in the first half.
From there, we had seven games in a 15 day stretch leading up to our conference tournament. We came together during that stretch. The practices became more intense. The players bought in. The coaches yelled at them, ran them, made them do push-ups, installed new plays for every opponent and ran them in practice until they got it right. We went from a team with about five plays to one with about 20. On defense we became a force. We could full court press a team into turnovers by the bunch or zone a team into jacking threes up, leading to fast breaks. When we were at out best, we were a fun team to watch.
We won all seven games in that 15 day run, winding up on Senior Night with a 27-point shellacking over the beat us with the buzzer beater. That game ended seven minutes early because they were so frustrated one of them tackled one of guys from behind. The refs then stopped the game. So we cut down the nets afterwards with our fans taking pictures. It was as awesome as it has always appeared while watching college teams do it on TV.
We finished the season 9-1 and in first place in our division. With the number one seed in the West Division, we would have to play the number four seed from the East in the first game, a 1:00 Friday afternoon tip off.
A week to practice for the tournament would seem to be plenty, but a strep throat epidemic swept through the school, hitting the team very hard. Three starters, including the one with the sprained ankle at the start of the season were so sick they could not attend school, much less practice. Two of the bench players were also very sick as well. Some of the practices leading up to the tournament had as few as five players.
Instead of bussing to the tournament the school decided we would carpool. So we left for the tournament in Jacksonville not knowing who would be there for the game. Every player showed up, although many of them looked and felt terrible. We went with the five players who attended the final practice in the starting lineup even though three of them were bench players.
Our opponent who won only two games all season, gave us all kinds of trouble. We led by only three at the half. We did manage to pull out to a 15 point lead after the third quarter but by the end of the game we won by only eight points. It did not look good.
In the winner’s bracket of the double elimination tournament, we played a rival school who pulled off an upset of the two seed form the East. It would be our third meeting of the season scheduled form 9:00 PM. Of course, the games were running a bit long, so the game actually didn’t start until almost 10:00. It was a tough game that we led by 11 after three quarters. But a couple of turnovers to start the fourth led to quick buckets and from there they got rolling. Before we knew it we trailed by five.
But our senior small forward, the one who started the season with a sprained ankle and perhaps the sickest of the players, hit a huge three with less than a minute left to give us a lead we would hold on to for the rest of the game. We won by two points which meant a 9:00 AM game the next morning between us and the other unbeaten team, the number one seed from the East.
The Patriots had not been beaten all season long. They were the defending conference tournament champions and featured twins who were tall, athletic and can both shoot the three. They also had a two guard who could drain the three as well. He had bailed them out in their second game on Friday, making up for an off night the twins had in that game to pull out an eight point win.
On Saturday at 9:00 AM we had to play them in the winner’s bracket game. Win, and we advance to the Championship Finals. Lose and we must play another game between the winner of the two teams we both beat on Friday. All of the tournament games were shortened to 6;00 quarters because of the number of games to be played. This was not a format either of the top seeds liked very much. It was felt that this made it easier for a lower seed to hang with us. On Friday it appeared that way with the close games we had.
We also didn’t like the first meeting between us all season was going to be a three-quarter game. The game was tied 24-24 in a game we led 14-6 at one point. There is no shot clock in high school ball so they ate the last minute and a few seconds playing for the last shot. Neither the twins or the hot-shooting two guard could get a shot off against our defense. So their point guard launched a desperation three pointer that hit off the backboard and went in with 7 seconds left to win the game.
This meant we had to play again at 3:00ish against the same team we had beaten for a third straight time the night before. Now we had to beat them a fourth time. This worried me. It’s tough to beat a team three times, beating them four seemed nearly impossible. But we played our best game of the tournament and won by about 29 to advance to the Championship.
It was determined that the Championship Game would be a regular game with 8:00 quarters and if we won, since that would be their first loss, a one quarter tie breaker would follow immediately afterward to decode the tournament.
The game was a nail biter from the start with our leading scorer, best defensive player and senior leader picking up two fouls before two minutes had expired. To make things worse, our starting point guard also got into foul trouble early and our small forward, who was playing despite being very sick had to come out early because he just couldn’t go any more. Despite our three leading scorers being down for the rest of the first half, we trailed by only one at halftime.
The second half was about as exciting as any basketball game any fan could want to watch. It went back and forth and at the end we made one last defensive stop to pull out a one pint win and hand them their only loss of the season. But unfortunately all those games and all that sickness just took its toll and we had nothing left in the tank for the tie-breaker. It was as crushing a defeat following as big a victory as I’ve ever experienced. Those kids left it all on the floor. Of course, they were crushed that they fell just a bit short of winning it all, but they played their hearts out.
To play five games in two days then have to go to a tie breaker, as sick as they were, was something they should be proud of for the rest of their lives.
If you are a sports fan, but have not paid much attention to your local high school sports, you are missing out. There are no shoe contracts, free agents, or endorsement deals to be won. It’s all about winning for your school, your teammates and your family. It is what we loved about sports from the beginning.