By Max Goodwin
The Center Yellowjackets basketball team endured a painful offseason after losing to Pembroke Hill in an agonizing Class 4 district championship game last year.
Center all but had the win locked up. They were dribbling out the final seconds of a hard-fought defensive battle when a fan—apparently from Center’s side of the gym—ran across the corner of the court as they celebrated.
The referee called the Center bench for a violation, placing Pembroke Hill at the free throw line down by one. Pembroke Hill made both and won the game, 37-36.
Center players and coaches left the court stunned. That loss still hurts eight months later.
“We felt that pain,” senior forward Keyon Spiller said. “We held that in and embraced it.”
The Yellowjackets carried that feeling with them as they entered their second game of the season, a rematch with their newly established rival, Pembroke Hill. The meeting made for an exciting early-season showdown where both teams were able to let some of those lingering emotions loose.
Pembroke Hill actually beat Center twice last season, both games at Pembroke Hill. The score was tight throughout both—showcasing the physical clashes of two different styles.
It was clear that the memory of those battles were fresh in the minds of both squads when a foul late in the JV game turned into a shoving match that resulted in technical fouls being called on both teams.
That early conflict would set the tone for the rest of the night. What followed in the trilogy was another heated game between two of the best teams in Kansas City.
Pembroke Hill players appeared charged after being denied a pre-game handshake from Center captains. They played with passion early in the game, making the first four attempts from three to take an early 12-2 lead.
Center trailed 18-8 by the end of the first quarter. The Yellowjackets continued to struggle to get into the game through the second quarter until several defensive plays sparked a run from being down 25-17 to 25-23 at the half.
Late in the fourth quarter, senior point guard Joseph Vick drew a foul and made the free throw that tied the game at 48, sending it into overtime. Center held Pembroke Hill scoreless for most of overtime, and held on for a 53-50 win.
“Testament to my guys,” Center head coach LeDale Wooten said as he took in the emotions after the game.
“We didn’t bend when we were down. We’ve been in worse places than that. We go home to worse places than that. We teach perseverance, man. All we do is fight in life and we transfer that to the court and that’s what we’re about,” Wooten said.
Vick missed all of last basketball season with an injury suffered during football season. In one of his first games back on the court, he brought the same steady leadership as he had as the Yellowjackets quarterback.
So, while Center played with the same fight they showed last season, they also had a senior leader to bring the ball up, help control tempo, facilitate, and score. Vick’s size and intensity also give the Yellowjackets another asset on defense.
“That’s my best friend, I’ve been playing with him since seventh grade,” Spiller said. “The kid is crazy. I mean, his mindset is crazy. He’s taking it from the field and bringing it on the court.”
“It’s his leadership, but also it’s that dog in him, like nothing you do can stop him.”
Spiller himself is also an important part of the team. He brings constant energy with an always moving motor, deflecting passes, blocking shots, getting rebounds, and going hard to the hoop.
Against Pembroke Hill, Spiller unleashed enough energy that both of his legs were cramping through the fourth quarter and overtime of the game. He had to be helped off the court on several occasions as trainers stretched him out. Each time, Spiller quickly jumped up and ran to the scorers table to come back in.
Pembroke Hill has moved up to Class 5, and so the two teams will not be seeing each other again in the state playoffs this year. Nonetheless, Wooten was energized by the early season effort of the team as they worked to overcome the pain of last season’s tragic ending.
“It means that we can be a really good team,” Wooten said. “One step in the right direction. They showed me they can fight. I believe in them and they believe in me and we’re ready to ride.”