Tomorrow night, the last two boys basketball teams that remain unbeaten in City League play will decide who keeps first place as the season nears its midway point.
It is no huge shock that one of those teams is Rogers, as the Rams (9-1, 4-0 CL) returned most of their top personnel from last season, and were picked to finish second in a preseason poll of league coaches.
What is surprising, however, is host Rogers scheduled opponent for this midseason showdown the Waite Indians (8-1, 4-0).
That same poll had coach Dave Pitsenbarger s Indians tabbed for fifth, and even that may have seemed like a stretch. Waite graduated all five starters and six of its top seven players from a team that finished 14-7 (8-3 CL) and reached the league playoffs and the Division I district semifinals last season.
It was a lot of hard work and a lot of work in the summer, Pitsenbarger said of the transition. We knew we had some athletes coming back. As the summer went on, after a couple shootouts we were in, they really started to jell. They were believing in themselves and that we could be successful, even though we lost the six guys.
Anyone who questions the Indians status as a CL playoff contender should ask St. John s Jesuit and St. Francis de Sales, teams picked to place first and third, respectively, and teams that have already fallen to Waite.
Thanks to a clutch 3-pointer from 5-foot-11 senior point guard David Butte in the closing seconds, the Indians took a 55-52 win at St. Francis on Dec. 19. Then, on Jan. 9, host Waite put five players in double figures, hit 11 of its 18 3-point tries and shot 59 percent overall in upsetting favored St. John s 74-63.
Leading the way has been versatile 6-3 senior Darius Glover, who can play anywhere from guard to the post, and most importantly believes in his team.
A lot of people didn t think we had a team because we lost those six seniors, Glover said. But we worked hard all summer. We came to the gym every day and shot extra shots and just hung around each other. We got that chemistry going early.
Considering the Indians lost about 85 percent of their scoring and rebounding from last season, believing has certainly been a must, especially last Friday when host Waite trailed Clay by eight points with three minutes remaining.
Having run out of inspirational messages, Pitsenbarger simply challenged his team during a late timeout to defend their turf. He asked them if they were ready to let their rivals end Waite s 14-game home winning streak.
The answer was a definitive no. The Indians closed the game with a 13-0 run to take a 65-60 victory.
We were kind of flat all night, but in those last three minutes we came out with the intensity we ve had all year, Pitsenbarger said. It shows that we can face adversity, keep our composure and come out with a victory.
The Indians won all nine home games last season led by first-team All-CL guard and Waite career scoring leader Khari Riley, second-team All-CL forward Brent Meredith, fellow senior starters Hakeem Muhammad, Robert Jackson and Sean Pettaway, and senior sub Ray Parker. But that team was built gradually over four seasons, with Riley, Meredith and Parker on the varsity for all four.
This year s crew hasn t had to wait so long.
What we ve been preaching for five years is being a team, being a family, being proud of the school and the community that you re from, Pitsenbarger said. They feel the support and feel like they want to stay here. They see that people care, and if they work hard and do the right things, they re going to have a lot of people in their backcourt.
Glover the team s sixth man and primarily a four-points-per game inside player last season asked Pitsenbarger over the summer if he could expand his role to the perimeter. The coach said yes, provided Glover put in the necessary shooting work.
Glover kept his end of the bargain and the net result is that he leads the team in scoring (19.1 average) and rebounding (9.3).
Ke-Sean Harris, a 6-foot guard who saw significant varsity time as a freshman last season, has also elevated his game. He is averaging 17.1 points through nine games.
We break the huddle every day as a family and we play as a family, Harris said. People thought we weren t going to be good enough for the final four. But we beat St. John s and we [earlier] beat St. Francis on their home court. That really helped us.
We want to get [back] to the [CL] final four and keep working hard. That s it.
His cousin, 6-1 sophomore forward Dishon Harris, contributes 8.9 points per game, 6-7 junior post Antonio Allen has added 9.0 points and 7.7 rebounds, and Butte, mostly a junior varsity player last season, has been the team s biggest surprise. He s averaged 5.2 points and 4.7 assists.
We saw the hard work those seniors did every day in practice, and we knew if we did that we d end up being good just like they were, Allen said. We knew we were for real from the beginning of the season. And we know we have to keep working hard and we ll keep being successful.
I learned last year, when you re in the game, go as hard as you can and stay focused no matter what. Make sure you all work as a team. I just have to make sure to do my role, do my part as a family member to make sure we get the win.
Off the bench, the top contributors have been 6-6 junior Luke Murphy,6-2 senior Evan Bauer and 6-0 junior Anthony Perrin.
Pitsenbarger had built Waite into a CL contender during his previous stint as head coach, losing 48-47 in the 2001 City championship on a last-second shot against Scott. He resigned following that season, but decided to give it another shot in 2004.
Coach Pit is very dedicated, Glover said. I think he spent more time in the gym with us than he spent at home with his family. He wants to see the students here and the players just make it and be successful.
He tells us every day to focus and take every day seriously because someday you re going to be out there in the real world and you re going to have to step up and be a man.
Pitsenbarger spreads the credit.
It was a sacrifice, Pitsenbarger said, and I couldn t have done it without my assistant coaches being there putting in the time and effort that they have all summer. It s taken a total team effort.
The [Waite teaching] staff has also gotten more involved showing up at games. It s a total small community effort that we ve got going, and it makes a difference. The kids see the support, and the student body is starting to get involved and getting some spirit back in the program. It was tough at times but I ve always felt that, if you put in some hard work here at Waite High School, the kids are going to respond.
After Rogers, Waite will continue to be tested, as six of its remaining nine scheduled regular-season games will be on the road.
The City League s not easy, Pitsenbarger said. From top to bottom, you can get beat by somebody on any night. These guys are going to have to stay focused and continue to work hard.