THE LEGEND OF WHITBURN COUNTY
I just want to go on record right now, in front of God and everybody, that I never, ever planned it to wind up the way it did. Things just happened.
In the end, though, I'm glad it all worked out.
See, Jared and I always wanted to play basketball. He was too skinny and I was too short for football, and neither one of us could throw or hit or run very well to play baseball or track.
There were endless nights playing half-court in the driveway of Jared's family farm, shooting hoops until his mom finally flashed the outside light to let him know it was time to come in. I would take a last shot, he'd grab the rebound and score. We'd say our good-byes, then I'd walk down that driveway, cross over State Highway 58, and then take the slow walk up to our farmhouse on the other side.
That was how we grew up. We did that for years and years. Then, when I was in eighth grade, things started to change. And the next five years of my life would be completely different.
The first thing that happened was the farm. My mom had died a few years before, and my dad had to sell off some of our cattle to make ends meet. Jared's parents had helped out in that respect. However, two things happened simultaneously (almost, I don't know which happened first): my dad met Mary Lee, and we started having flooding problems on the farm.
Mary Lee lived in the city of Whitburn. Whitburn was the county seat of (surprise, surprise) Whitburn County, but in realistic terms, it wasn't much of a city. If I remember my civics courses right, Whitburn had a population in the last census of 8,343. It was the largest city in the county, mostly because Whitburn County had only 28,000 or so people in the entire county. Anyway, my dad fell in love with Mary Lee, and they were married in our equipment shed (basically, a barn with aluminum siding and a concrete slab that could house three tractors and a combine).
We were going to have the wedding outside on the side lawn, but in late April we had an absolutely torrential downpour that flooded part of our planting area and the entire side lawn. After it had dried up a bit, we discovered that the rain had eroded part of the soil in the one part of the crops, and had actually opened an underground spring. Pretty soon, a good twenty percent of our farm was a huge pond.
The problem with the flooding led to an obvious decision: We were going to have to sell the farm. My dad sat down with me, explained what was happening, why we had to do this, and all the reasons why it was going to be all right. We would move to Whitburn with Mary Lee, who owned a house given to her by her parents, the old family homestead.
It wasn't bad living in Whitburn a lot of my friends lived in Whitburn, actually, and it was a really nice house but it was the other thing that happened that really affected me.
You see, the entire county is one large school district. There are four different elementary schools, Kindergarten through 8th grade, and then there were two High Schools. One was for the southern part of the county (Thompsonville High School, the "Fightin' Tigers"), the other was for the northern part of the county (Whitburn High School, the "Panthers"). They always were a little loose on which school you went to, though. The rules stated that wherever you went to elementary school for eighth grade was where you'd go to High School. Jared and I both went to Plainview Elementary, located in Plainview (which was exactly halfway between Whitburn and Thompsonville).
My dad knew I wanted to still go to Plainview, so I could go to Thompsonville High with Jared. I still was enrolled at Plainview, and because of the rules, I'd have to stay where I was, or I'd end up going to Whitburn. So we worked out this arrangement with Jared's parents where I'd stay with them during the week, help out with chores and what not, and on the weekends I'd go up to Whitburn and stay at Mary Lee's house.
It actually wasn't a bad situation, since Jared and I were playing eighth-grade basketball for Plainview, and it gave me a "break-in" period with Mary Lee. By the time the school year ended, I was comfortable with my new step-mom, and actually looked forward to moving in to the house full-time. Mary Lee's daughter, Luann, was amiable and outgoing, and we grew close over the next few years.
My dad managed to get the farm sold the first week in September, exactly three months after he got remarried. We had a big moving day, and Jared helped me move my stuff in to his family's back bedroom, and then he and his dad helped us move our stuff up to Whitburn. It was a beautiful day, right in the middle of Indian Summer, and everything looked like it was going to be all right.
Or so we thought.
Now, I'll admit that I didn't hear much about what was going on with the Whitburn School District. I knew that they were building a second campus, right next to the existing Whitburn High School building. And I kinda knew that Thompsonville High was dwindling in numbers, but Thompsonville had always been the smaller of the two county high schools.
I'd only been staying with Jared's family for a few weeks when his dad told me that there was a big school board meeting scheduled for the first week in October. The board had a new chairman Mark Petroski who had gone to Morgantown State University, the biggest college in the state, for his Ph.D. in Education. He had all these ideas on how to improve things, and finally, in the last round of School Board elections, he had managed to get elected to the chair. The old school board chairman, Christian Wilson, had died of a heart attack after serving on the board for something like 40 years.
Everyone thought that the big school board meeting was going to be about renaming the elementary school in Whitburn after Wilson. My mom had been good friends with Mr. Wilson, and had even worked under him when he was both school board chair and principal of Whitburn Elementary.
What actually happened was a shock. I watched it at Jared's house on the cable access channel. Petroski opened the meeting by making a statement that there were going to be some changes in how the school district was going to operate. First, he said, he had found a way to pay for the cost of the new addition to Whitburn High, and still have finances left over to keep the district well in the black financially.
This was greeted by applause, since the district had always been close to the financial edge for the last several years. When he explained how he had done it, thought, the applause turned to shocked gasps.
"The District," he stated, "has entered into an agreement with the Diocese of St. George's Catholic Church in Thompsonville, and with Riverton Developments, to sell the buildings and land of Thompsonville High School. The original main building of Thompsonville High will be sold to St. George's, for the purpose of opening a Catholic School; the newer building will be sold to Riverton Developments for the purpose of building a retail and office center."
Then Petroski dropped the bombshell "Since Whitburn High School will have double the capacity for the next school year, all students grades 9 through 12 in Whitburn County will go to Whitburn High, starting the next academic year."
"WHAT???" screamed Jared's dad at the TV set. Jared and I just exchanged blank looks.
Petroski, oblivious of Jared's dad's ranting, presented the proposal to the board. Then, one of the other members I think he was the financial officer called for a vote on the proposal. There was a massive outcry from those observing the meeting in Whitburn. The voice vote on the issue, not surprisingly, was 5-4 in favor. All five votes for the measure were from Whitburn-based board members; the other four were from Thompsonville.
"So approved," Petroski gaveled on the table. "The proposal will be put forth on the November ballot for final approval by the entire school district."
And then, after all the noise had died down, did he announce that the Whitburn Elementary School would be renamed for Wilson.
Jared's dad went ballistic. He started cursing left and right at Petroski.
He had a good reason to curse. See, something I didn't tell you about Jared his last name is Thompson. His great-great-grandfather was the man who Thompsonville is named for. His great-grandfather was the mayor who built Thompsonville High School. And his uncle was the current mayor of the city (his grandfather never went into politics he was a farmer whose land Jared and his parents lived on today).
When the phone rang, Jared knew instantly who it was. "Uncle Jerry," he said without missing a beat as he grabbed his coat and a basketball. He motioned for me to come with outside he knew that we wouldn't want to hear all the cursing and swearing.
Jared's dad and his uncle talked on the phone for a long time. I know they were, because when we came back in, he was just hanging up the phone.
"It's settled," his dad told Jared. "If this measure passes, you're going to St. George's School."
I asked him if he knew whether or not the measure would pass.
"It'll pass," he said bluntly. "There's too many people in Whitburn who would rather consolidate the entire school district instead of paying to send half the county to a smaller high school." He sighed and shook his head. "We'll talk about it more in the morning, Jared. Why don't you and Billy get your homework done."
As the weeks went on, it was clear that Jared's dad was right. Too many people in the northern part of the county wanted the cost reductions; a poll by the Whitburn Intelligencer projected the measure to pass with a 60 percent approval. It wasn't quite that big. The measure was passed by about 3,000 votes, with the approval only topping 9,000 votes.
But it was settled. Thompsonville High would no longer be a public high school. Saint George's, which to that point had run a small elementary school out of their parish hall, would actually have room to expand their classes.
The change was going to affect a lot of things most of all, the Northern Lakes Athletic Conference. The conference was an eight-team conglomerate of high schools from the four counties around Whitburn Woodfield (Woodfield and Newsburg), Shoreland (Shoreland and Oxford Lakes), Chemequon, and Marshall. The Conference was aligned with the state High School Athletic Association, which was strictly for the public schools in the state. Private schools were in the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association.
In December, just as we were starting our eighth-grade basketball season, the ISAA and HSAA came to an agreement to allow the Northern Lakes Conference to keep St. George's as a member. It made sense, since there was only one other private school in the five-county area St. Michael's in Woodfield, which was a good two hour drive away, and they didn't have an athletic program. The ISAA announced that the new school would only be allowed to play in their state tournament if they qualified for the conference tournament. The HSAA, however, stated that if St. George's qualified for the Northern Lakes Conference tournament, they would not be allowed to play, since the winner of the tournament automatically would advance to the HSAA state tournament.
Jared's dad still was insisting that he'd be going to St. George's. For the first time since we were in first grade, we'd be going to separate schools. At the end of the school year, I was going to move up to Whitburn with my Dad and my step-sister Luann.
I was feeling sad about it, but Luann (who was two years older than me) agreed to drive me down to see Jared on a regular basis. I found out later that Luann actually had a crush on Jared's older brother, Jerry something that was confirmed when they got married after I graduated from Whitburn.
Basketball was a pleasant distraction during this tumultuous time in my life. It was basketball that had helped me through the pain of losing my mom years ago, and it helped me again in this whole whirlwind of changes. But there was something that I noticed as I played endless one-on-ones with Jared he was getting better and stronger and faster.
The year my mom died, I had a decided advantage on him in ability. I could shoot; he couldn't. I could hit those outside jumpers, where he was having trouble laying it in on me. He kept working, though. When we played a pickup game with me and a few of my cousins before the wedding, he put moves on me that were just incredible. He head faked, drove, pulled up and put a little jumper right in, nothing but net. He did a few other things to me, like nailing an outside 20-footer, even hooking one right over me. Now, I knew he'd grown faster than me (he was already 5-foot-11 when we entered eighth grade; I was only 5-4 on a good day), but he finally realized that he could outmaneuver me. My cousins were making comments, like, "Billy, I thought you were a better player than this!" And "Jeez, Billy, where'd you find this guy, the NBA?"
I didn't think much of that game until Jared, Jerry and I entered in this three-on-three tournament down at Lakeside. Lakeside Tech was a NCAA Division II school that was big for its basketball, and they were sponsoring this tournament. The premise was that Jerry (who was going to be a senior at the new St. George's High that year) was going down to Lakeside Tech to check out the campus, since Jerry wasn't a bad basketball player himself. Jerry also knew we'd be able to test ourselves against other players throughout the state.
Jared and I were the youngest kids in that tournament. The bracket we were in was open to anyone 14-18 who lived in the state, and there were some kids who played for the best teams in the HSAA. We took them all on, and kept winning and winning and winning. Finally, we went up against the only other undefeated team in the bracket, a threesome from Riverton (the largest city in the state) with two players from Riverton North and a kid who was the only other kid close to our age Mitch Jordan. The two older kids would end up going to Morgan State University (the NCAA Division I powerhouse in the state). In that game, though, we just demolished them. They kept waiting for Jared to dish the ball off to Jerry inside, leaving him wide open at the three-point arc. He nailed about three treys before they started getting in his face. Then he just started dishing it to me and to Jerry, and pretty soon we were up by about a dozen. We won the game, then defeated the winner of the consolation bracket game to take the tournament title. One of the organizers was the head coach of the Lakeside Tech basketball team, and he asked Jared how old he was. When he told him he was only 14, the coach's eyes popped open wide.
"Kid, keep your grades up," he told him. "You keep playing like that, and we'll definitely find you a place at Lakeside Tech."
Jerry told me later that while he was talking to the coach about possibly coming to LTU, he kept saying, "That brother of yours could start for me right now. That's how good he is."
My freshman year at Whitburn was interesting, to say the least. Some of the classrooms in the new building hadn't been completely finished when we started school in late August, so I had some of my classes in the cafeteria. They sectioned off parts of the cafeteria with these cubicle-type walls, and you'd hear one class talking about algebra and equations while another class was talking about the Punic Wars and yet another class was listening to a French-speaking lesson from a videotape. It was distracting, to say the least.
Making the basketball team looked like it was going to be hard sailing there were at least thirty kids there for the tryouts in late October. Whitburn, however, had lost five seniors to graduation, and two of the junior players from last year were academically ineligible after flunking two classes last year. That left the head coach, Roger Mason with one senior, one junior and four sophomores with a total number of seven games played between all of them. The JV was even worse all of the players on the team had been freshmen, and they went 0-14 on the season. Half of the JV from last year weren't coming back (some of them because they just couldn't, or didn't want to, play). So there we all were, thirty guys wanting to take 13 spots on the JV and varsity roster.
Half of the players were from Thompsonville, who had maybe one decent player and a lot of so-so players. Thompsonville hadn't played in the Northern Lakes tournament in over a decade, and last year had only two wins on the season one against a non-conference team from Oxford Falls, and the other against Whitburn.
During the tryouts, I made a good impression on the coach by nailing a few treys and doing some quality driving down the lane. I even tried to dish a few passes out for shots, but the guys on the receiving end either dropped the ball or missed the jumpers. At the end of the tryout, he rattled off the names of 15 guys who would be back for varsity practice on Friday. I was on that list.
I was so excited, I talked about it all the way home with Luann. She was happy for me, and so were dad and Mary Lee. After dinner, I called up Jared and told him the news. He wasn't as happy, though.
"You remember we thought Coach Halvorsen was going to stay on as the coach here at Thom Saint George's?" he told me over the phone. "Well, turns out Halvorsen only stayed on to collect his pension. The team's going to be coached by some guy named MacGwire. He's got a policy that says no underclassmen will play on the varsity team."
MacGwire, apparently, didn't know his head from his posterior region. Jared tried his best to show off his talents during the drills, but after MacGwire laid down his policy about underclassmen before even starting the tryouts, Jared's heart wasn't exactly in it.
"He didn't want me to come back for practice, but he only had 21 kids there, besides me," he told me. He told me that I had to improve my game if I wanted to play. Improve my play! This guy never saw me play, dammit! He doesn't know crap about anything. I asked him if he'd seen any of the YMCA 8th grade league games in Thompsonville he didn't even realize there was a YMCA league!
Jared and I had played in the YMCA boys 8th grade league. There was no state-wide association for elementary school basketball, so we had to play in the Thompsonville YMCA league. Jared had just torn things up on occasion I seem to recall a 50-point night once and Halvorsen had seen it and liked what he saw in Jared.
We found out later that Halvorsen was forced out as coach at the new Saint George's for one very significant reason he wasn't Catholic. Shaun MacGwire was not only Catholic, but he was a Notre Dame graduate, with a Masters Degree in Coaching. He probably was looking to eventually take on a coaching job at St. Mary's Immaculate University in Riverton, if their coach (Roger Mayers) ever retired. He didn't have time for a kid's league in a podunk town.
Jared was so caught up in his furor over MacGwire that he never did ask me how I did in my tryouts. It's a good thing; he probably would have never spoken to me again if he had found out just then.
I managed to stick with the Whitburn varsity as a freshman, but I didn't really get into a whole lot of games. The varsity had gone 10-10 the year before, but we were going to be lucky if we won four games this year. We won two non-conference games, one with Oxford Falls and another with Washura. Washura had a two-hour bus trip, and were physically wiped when we whipped them, 85-14. Unfortunately, it was something they wouldn't forget when they beat us at their fieldhouse the next week and the next six games we played against them. We hit the conference schedule, and couldn't buy a win. MacGwire refused to schedule Whitburn until March, for some slightly irrational reason, so we played everyone else in the Northern Lakes conference and lost. By the time we faced the St. George's varsity, we were 2-16, and in last place in the conference.
As the year went on, Jared talked about how MacGwire constantly ranted about life in Thompsonville. He didn't like the IGA store, he didn't like Marty's Hardware he didn't even like the Hardee's downtown. His poor attitude showed in the amount of time he spent with the JV team which was next to nothing. He let his basketball manager run JV practice in the small gym of St. George's while he ran the varsity practice in the Fieldhouse.
This wasn't so bad the manager, Jerry White, was a buddy of Jared's, and Jared essentially ran the practice. Those nine guys started a little slow, but pretty soon they had an 8-4 record in conference games. The varsity was at 4-14.
The stage was set for the county championship which was about all it was going to be for, since both schools were out of the running for the fourth spot in the conference tourney. Whitburn went to Thompsonville for their first game against Saint George's and I was the starting point guard. Coach Mason liked how I'd come off the bench and shoot the bombs, and our regular point guard was hurting with an ankle injury.
It was strange to go into the Saint George's Fieldhouse. Where they used to have the "Fightin' Tigers" logo of Thompsonville on the wall, the sign now said "Crusaders".
I wish I could say that I had a great night, scoring left and right, and we went on to beat Saint George's. But that night, the 2nd of March, was the worst night I ever had in organized basketball. I took a shot from the perimeter with a defender trying to block the jumper, and when I turned to go back up court, our legs got tangled and I went down in a heap. I ended up twisting my ankle, having to go to Thompsonville Medical Center to get it checked out.
Jared, meanwhile, had lit up our JV with a 42-point game, as the Crusader JV beat them, 56-24. He went along with me and my parents when I had to go to the hospital. After they put a soft cast around the ankle to immobilize it, we heard that St. George's had won, 58-42. To that point, I'd been averaging about 17 points a game, so it didn't take too much to figure out that things might have been different if I had been there and I said so to my parents.
Jared, of course, took the air out of my balloon when he heard that "Yeah, but if I was playing for Saint Georgies, I woulda scored 30 more and we'd have beaten you 88-59."
The ride home was quiet after that.
The season ended three days later when the Crusaders came up to Whitburn and pulled a repeat performance, winning this time 60-43. As time went on over the spring and summer, the memories of that painful night would diminish mostly because of a friend of Luann's who set Jared and me up on a date for the Spring Formal.
Their names were Katie and Tamara Williamson. They were twins. Katie was a smart, serious type; "Tam" was a flighty, spur-of-the-moment type. Tamara was my date that night, and Katie was Jared's but by the time the night was through, it was apparent as to who liked whom.
I was drawn to Katie right away. She was able to talk about things from state history to national politics to whether or not professional sports athletes made too much money. We hit it off after Tamara went to talk to her gobs of cheerleader friends at Whitburn, and Jared went with her to talk to the jocks he knew that were with the gobs of cheerleader friends. Jared wasn't exactly shy about showing his appreciation for Tamara, either.
About halfway through the night, the two of them went off to the ladies' room to "powder their noses." Jared and I discussed how much we liked each other's date, and we made a decision we were going to switch, right there. Just like changing defenses, from the zone to a man-to-man.
What we didn't know at the time was that the girls had made the same decision in the restroom. When they came back, they told us that they were switching dates. Jared and I looked at each other, and we didn't exactly argue.
That night was the start of a great relationship. We spent most of the rest of our high school days with each other, the four of us as some wandering band of basketball crazy, fun loving kids. It was one of those relationships that would last a lifetime and it would, eventually. I don't think I'm giving away the ending to the story when I say I married Katie and Jared Tamara later on.
Our sophomore year was a good one. The highlight of the year was when Jared and the St. George's JV basketball squad arrived in Woodfield for a game in the middle of December, expecting to play a JV game. Instead, they saw the Woodfield varsity squad coming out onto the court. Apparently, MacGwire had scheduled the St. George's Varsity to play down in Riverton against St. Mary's Prep, assuming that the game against Woodfield would be for the JV teams. The Woodfield coach didn't understand that to be the case, and told Jared and the kids that the varsity game would be forfeited if they couldn't get a team there.
Jared called down to Riverton, but couldn't get a hold of MacGwire. He suddenly had a thought he asked Woodfield's coach, Rod Maryland, if he knew of any ISAA rules against playing two games against two teams on the same night. Apparently, there wasn't, and Jared talked to the guys on the JV team: "Let's play them both. What the heck."
So, without a coach, and with only a manager and team statistician to oversee the team, the St. George's JV took on both the Varsity and JV squads of the defending conference champion Woodfield Eagles. The JV game was shortened to only 16 minutes by agreement, so the St. George's team could rest between games. The St. George's squad won, 40-24, in the reduced time. Jared scored 32 of the 40, and it was the JV's fourth win on the season.
Then, they came out for the varsity game. Tam told me about it later, since she came to pick him up after what she thought would be his only game of the night. The Crusaders won the opening tip, and from there on out it was all Jared. Jared started hitting threes like no one's business, and they played a tenacious defense that held Woodfield to a mere eight points in the first period. Jared had 12 points in the first period, but Woodfield would double-team him in the second period. The Eagles scored twice to take a 13-12 lead halfway through the second period.
Jared called a time-out. The team went to the bench, and Jared told his teammates to screen him for a shot at a three but "take your time," he told them. The Crusaders went out and did just that. He waited for the screen, they got a mismatch with about 10 seconds to go, and then he lofted up a perfect 20-footer that swished through. Woodfield tried to get a quick basket, but their last-second shot of the half missed, and the Crusaders had the one-point lead at the half.
St. George's got the ball on the alternating possession rule at the beginning of the second half. They never turned it over. The Crusaders did launch "two or three shots," according to Jared, but they came down with the rebound and worked it over again. Jared took a last second shot, got fouled going up for score, and went to the line to shoot two. He calmly sank both to give the Crusaders a 17-13 lead.
The Eagles got the ball at the start of the fourth period. They ran the ball down, and Miguel Gonzalez, their star forward, hit a trey to pull them within one. On the next trip down for the Crusaders, as soon as Jared touched the ball they cleared out, setting Gonzalez on the low post trying to funnel Jared in to him. Jared faked as if he would drive the lane, pulled up and shot a three from the top of the key to make it 20-16. Gonzalez drove in on Jared on the next possession, took a shot that missed but drew the foul. Amazingly, it was St. George's first foul of the entire game. Gonzalez sank both free throws to pull the Eagles within two.
The Woodfield coach decided at this point that he had enough. He yelled, "PRESS!" to his team as the Crusaders in-bounded the ball. They did, and picked up four straight fouls against Jared, putting them on the edge of the bonus. Jared then in-bounded to teammate Chris Smith, who had the ball stripped from him and taken in for an easy lay-up. Tie game at 20 with under three minutes left.
Jared called for another time-out. He told his teammates to try to clear out, he was going to drive it, see if he could get the basket and the foul, and then they could try to play for the last shot. He got the in-bounds from Smith, and the rest of the team dutifully cleared out. He drove down the lane, got hacked on the arm as he went up and the ball still went in. He went to the line and calmly sank the bonus. Woodfield responded by marching the ball down court, giving the ball to Gonzalez on a perfect screen, and sank a trey to tie the game again at 23, with just under two minutes to go.
Jared walked the ball down the court, thought for a second and surprised everyone when he drove in, took the shot and scored to take a 25-23 lead with a minute and a half to go.
His teammates were screaming, "What the hell are you doing?" (I can imagine some of the priests taking in the game weren't too happy with that, but it was the truth). Then, they watched as Jared then stepped right in front of Gonzalez as he walked the ball down, making him fall down. Second personal, second team foul. Before they could in-bound the ball, he called another time-out.
"Foul them," he said. "We've got 85 seconds and three fouls to give. Don't let them near the basket. If they get to the line, we get the ball and the last shot."
He was prophetic. Smith got nailed twice reaching in on the ball holder. Point guard Terry Martin then got called for a foul trying to knock the ball loose. All of it done within twenty seconds. On the in-bound, Gonzalez took the ball, and with Jared guarding him, drove to the basket. Jared got knocked down, and the ball went out of bounds, but he was called for the foul. (Tam insisted to me when she told me about the game, "It was a complete charge on Gonzalez's part!") Gonzalez sank both free throws to tie the game with fifty seconds to go.
They didn't press this time, and Jared walked the ball up to the time line. He dribbled around, handed the ball to Smith who handed it right back to him and shook his head, "uh-uh." Gonzalez was on him, preventing the pass. He walked around to the top of the key, stopped, and handed it off to Smith again. Smith came around, dribbled once and gave it right back to him. The seconds ticked away: 15, 14, 13, 12
Time running down, he set up. He eased back into Gonzalez, trying to get him to commit. Gonzalez didn't bite. Then Jared faked to his left, so solidly that Gonzalez followed, but then backed up beyond the three-point arc and let loose with a perfect jumper that drained the net. 28-25 with two seconds to go.
Woodfield tried to call time-out before the horn sounded, but the ref signaled the game was over. Final score: Jared 28, Woodfield 25.
The manager took a photo of the shot Jared made, and it made the front page of the Thompsonville Times. Hernandez was practically on all fours and way out of position to try to stop Jared from driving. And all 28 points scored were by way of Jared.
MacGwire was not happy when he learned of the game. The Crusader Varsity squad had been soundly defeated at the hands of St. Mary's Prep, 53-26. He subsequently suspended Jared for two games instead of taking notice that Jared's totals added to the Varsity totals would have meant a win against St. Mary's.
The ISAA made things worse for MacGwire, ruling that St. George's would have to cancel a non-conference home game to meet the scheduling requirements of no more than 20 regular season games.
That, however, wasn't the ultimate insult to MacGwire. At the next game, against Oxford Lakes at Thompsonville, none of the JV players showed up for the game. Chris Smith's father gave MacGwire a note, signed by the entire team: If Jared doesn't play, we don't play. Down at the bottom, beneath the signatures, was an equation: 26 + 28 = WIN.
MacGwire responded in his typical manner: after a verbal tirade of epic proportions, he told Mr. Smith that his son and the rest of the team were suspended for two games. Mr. Smith then told MacGwire to "go to Hell and stay there." Chris transferred to Whitburn the next day.
It got really bad during the game when some of the sophomore cheerleaders (some who were friends with Tami) started putting together "We Want Jared!" signs. The first time they pulled the signs out (after Oxford Lakes' varsity team went up 12-3 after the first period), MacGwire saw the sign, went out to the cheerleader who was holding it and tore it out of her hands. The students booed him unmercifully, and that was when the chanting started.
"We want Jared! We want Jared! WE WANT JARED!"
The chanting went on for the rest of the game and for the rest of the season. It got even louder in the first game back for the JV, when Jared took an alley-oop pass from Davey Wilson on the first shot of the game and slammed it through something unheard of in a JV game. The score was 21-0 by the end of the first period.
The game almost didn't go off, though. In the locker room before the game, there was a near-mutiny when MacGwire announced who was going to start and Jared wasn't on the list. The starting forward, Davey Wilson, started to take his uniform off. "If Jared's not starting, I'm not playing," he told MacGwire. MacGwire then took the next guy off the bench and told him he was starting. Same reaction. This kept going until only one player other than Jared was left George Kryzniki, a slightly chubby kid who had a jumper and not much else. "Don't even think about it" was all he had to say to coach. It would have been Kryzniki's first start ever and he turned it down. MacGwire then threatened another team-wide suspension, when Jared pulled out the ISAA rule book to the part about forfeits.
"Any school forfeiting three consecutive games for non-injury or non-academic reasons shall be subject to an audit by the Association, with a mandatory suspension of the school's program in that sport for a minimum of two seasons," he read. He then looked up at MacGwire, smiled briefly and put the book down.
MacGwire stomped out of the locker room into his office.
At the end of the season, it had become painfully obvious that MacGwire had become an out-of-control maniac when it came to coaching. The school principal, Father Michael Parrish, decided only to relieve MacGwire of his duties as athletic director. The St. George's long-time football coach, Dante Gerrold, re-took the job.
Word of how badly MacGwire handled kids got around, though, and not a single returning player wanted to play for him their senior year. MacGwire had a total of 10 players including Jared. Apparently, he tried to convince Gerrold that he could have a JV and a Varsity team. It was some cockamamie scheme that would have the three froshes and the two sophs play JV, while all five juniors would play varsity. He'd take two guys from the team not playing and put them on the bench. Gerrold talked him out of it, and gently suggested that he simply take the 10 players he had and play them all on the varsity squad. Marshall wasn't fielding a JV team that year, either, so there wouldn't be a scheduling problem.
Now, I know what you're thinking the ISAA rule above stated "scheduled" games. If no JV games were ever scheduled, the rule wouldn't apply. The ISAA ruled as much on the subject, and St. George's started the season with its first varsity team to include underclassmen. Considering that St. George's had only played two seasons, of course, this wasn't much of an accomplishment.
The response by the team was to roll out to six straight wins, the last being the opening game of an eight-team invitational down in Riverton. They then lost the semifinal against Riverton Tech, and got whomped in the consolation game by Riverton North. Mitch Jordan of North just embarrassed Jared, pumping in 42 of North's 60 points and holding Jared to only a dozen.
When they came home, it got worse Jared pulled a leg muscle against Woodfield early in the game, and sat out the rest of the game and the next one against Oxford Lakes. St. George's lost both of those games. When Jared came back, they ran off a seven game streak, never winning a single game by less than a dozen. Jared racked up five 40-point games, and never scored fewer than 31 in any of the seven games.
I was up-close and personal for the last win. All this time that Jared had been going through his soap opera at St. G's, I was having a half-way-decent career at Whitburn. The team had been mediocre in my freshman and sophomore years, but with all the turmoil at St. George's, we were starting to get the pick of the basketball crop in Whitburn County. Where the best players in the county tended to split between the two schools, now most of them were ending up with Whitburn. All of them, that is, except for Jared.
Anyway, the Crusaders wandered into our fieldhouse with us leading the conference by a game over Woodfield and St. George's. It looked like we'd be able to keep up we were tied after the first period, and down by only two at the half.
Jared, however, caught fire in the second half, and they just ran away and hid from us. Jared came within a point of setting a Thompsonville / St. George's record for scoring with 49 points against us, but MacGwire took him out of the game with a minute to go and the Crusaders up by 18.
MacGwire said immediately after the game to the radio announcer on WHIT that it wasn't because of any grudge or anything, it was just because he didn't want Jared to get hurt, with key games against the top four teams in the conference coming up over the next week. Jared didn't argue, however and he got a standing ovation from the fans when he sat down. Everyone in Whitburn County knew about Jared Thompson.
What happened after the game I heard from three different sources: both of the individuals involved, and from Katie. From what each of them told me, I pieced together that this is pretty much what happened:
Before the game, Jared and Tam got into an extended discussion (read: argument) about who was going to win the game. Tam told Jared that "Billy and Whitburn are gonna kick your butt." Jared, being the type of person that he is, responded with, "Wanna bet?"
And that was what started the whole thing. I noticed when we were leaving the court at the half, Tam had made a pantomime in the general direction of Jared that looked like she was driving a car. It turns out that that was what Jared's side of the bet was: If Whitburn won, he would have to drive Katie all over the place for the next week. And Katie was a very active girl.
That was incentive alone, according to Jared, to step it up a notch. Turns out, however, that wasn't the real incentive. Jared and Tam had been getting hot and heavy in recent days, which I already knew. Apparently, Jared bet her that if St. George's won, she'd have to "put out" for him.
Katie filled me in on the details after that: The new Whitburn Athletic Center has a strange setup, since the old Fieldhouse was originally North of the current Fieldhouse. The locker rooms used to be where the new pool is located. From what I understand, during construction they decided not to connect the building where the pool was being built with the Fieldhouse construction. After the foundation was laid, it was realized that there was a 10 foot wide gap between the wall where the pool construction ended and the Fieldhouse began. This wouldn't have been a problem, if the locker rooms weren't supposed to be connected. To remedy this, they built a hallway between the two buildings, ending at pool maintenance room. The problem didn't become apparent until the interior was finished to get from the showers connected to the pool to the locker rooms, you had to walk across this hallway.
To complicate matters, the bathrooms were closest to the hallway, with the coaches' offices on the side closest to the lobby of the fieldhouse, which was on the East side of the building.
Apparently, Tam got up and left when we were down by 20 with four minutes to go. She had planned to celebrate Whitburn's win with some sparkling grape juice with Jared as he drove her home. She switched to plan B. The only way you could look into the sauna/Jacuzzi area was from the Natatorium. The door to the hall separating the showers and the lockers (known to Whitburn students as "Streaker's Alley") was easily double locked. No one was in the weight room after the game, since it wasn't open on weekends, so the likelihood of anyone seeing or surprising them was practically nil.
She sneaked into the Visitor's lockers, found Jared's locker and left a note to meet her by the pool entrance by the Jacuzzi. He found the note, took a brief shower, and sneaked out into the pool area. He found Tam in the sauna, wearing nothing more than a smile and holding a glass of sparkling grape juice.
Without going into the gory details (which none of the three parties cared to share), suffice to say Jared took advantage of the situation. The two of them had sex in the Jacuzzi, right then and there. (Now, I know what you're thinking no, Jared told me he did use a condom.) What's amazing is that no one noticed that Jared was missing. He had his change of clothes back by the showers, but it didn't look like he wasn't in the shower room. Afterwards, Jared rushed back to the shower room, hurried, got dressed and innocently met a slightly disheveled Tamara in the lobby.
Looking back on the whole thing, they essentially got away with one. They consummated their relationship, and no one was the wiser. It wasn't until Katie told me about it on our date on Monday night the first day of spring break that my wonder as to why Tam seemed to smell of chlorine water made sense.
Katie and I had a long talk that night, too. We decided that we should wait until we were married to have sex. We weren't ready for the possible "side effects" of sex namely, kids and pregnancy. We did have a good kiss-and-hold session, though; then we headed back to Katie's house, where we were going to meet up with Jared and Tam.
What we didn't know was that everything was going to be turned upside down the moment they walked in the door.
I guess I should explain my remark about "Streaker's Alley." It came about when, in my freshman year, the first gal saw the first guy come out of the shower with nothing on but a towel. It gradually evolved from that into attempts by the girls to grab the towels off the guys as they left the showers. Some of the gals were convinced that the guys really weren't naked under the towels, and one or two of them tried to prove it. The first time, the guy had on underwear. The second guy didn't, and the gal chased him all the way into the guys' locker room. That was when it evolved into gals "cutting through" the guys' showers en route to the girls' lockers. It got to be a sort of initiation rite for the girls especially for the cheerleaders.
The teachers tried to stop it, but then they devised new ways of "sneaking and streaking," as they say. Apparently, it was Tam who did the ultimate "streak": she ran through the guys' showers, then through the guys' lockers (away from the offices) and then out the door. Tam, of course, never was the bashful type. Katie always contends this was how Tam ended up as captain of the squad; Tam downplays it as "coincidence."
Anyway, the same night that Katie and I were talking about life, Jared was at basketball practice. (St. George's wasn't on Spring Break that week.) Tam was going to meet him after practice to pick him up, then we were going to meet at her house to watch some videos. Jared was his usual "last guy in the gym" self, shooting baskets and working on his jumper. Coach MacGwire, his assistant and the team manager were the only ones still left in the building.
What happened next would change the lives of a lot of people. When Tam pulled up, she saw coach MacGwire leaving the building. ("I saw him get in his car and drive away," she told me later.) She wandered inside, catching the manager as he was leaving. He told her that Jared was still in the locker room. She then asked him if the girls' lockers were open, since she needed to use the bathroom.
While she went into the girls' lockers to use the bathroom, Jared was emerging from the showers next door in the boys' lockers. As he went into the showers, Jared said that he saw MacGwire leave as he went into the showers, but noticed that the light was still on in the coach's office. He assumed that the assistant coach was still in there, which he was.
Tam noticed that the locker room was laid out where the coaches couldn't see if someone was coming in without directly looking at the door. That was when she decided she was going to sneak in the locker room door, "to see if Jared was almost ready to go," was her official explanation. The unofficial explanation, according to Katie, was that "she wanted to give him a blow-job right by his locker."
Either way, Katie sneaked in without being seen by the assistant coach, and found Jared's locker. She nearly scared the crap out of him by grabbing him from behind.
Meanwhile, the assistant coach is in the office, jamming away to the radio, completely oblivious to everything and obviously unaware that he is the only person over the age of 21 in the entire building.
Jared and Tam both contend that they did nothing just then, but there's just barely enough of a gap in all the stories that something could have happened. Jared contends they argued over why the hell she came in there. Tam says that Jared told her to lay off, he had to finish getting dressed and then let the coach know he was leaving.
They both sneaked back to the entrance of the locker room (after he had finished dressing). He told her to get out before coach MacGwire came back in. Tam protested, telling him that MacGwire was gone, she had seen him pulling away in his car several minutes before. They both saw that the assistant coach was still listening to the radio and not paying attention to the locker room.
He then urged her towards the door, telling her, "Get out before somebody catches you in here."
Which was the exact moment that MacGwire came through the door. Tam turned around and was face-to-face with MacGwire.
They all looked at each other.
There was a long moment of silence. Even the music stopped. That was because the assistant coach had chosen that exact moment to come out of the office.
"Get out of here, NOW!" MacGwire boiled. Jared and Tam raced out the building, not even pausing to stop and listen as MacGwire continued to rant. "You're HISTORY! You're GONE, THOMPSON! OFF THE TEAM, OUT THE DOOR, NEVER GOING TO SET FOOT IN THIS BUILDING AGAIN!"
Jared was expelled from St. George's the next morning, on the "moral turpitude" clause in the student conduct code book.
It probably isn't a big surprise that St. George's basketball team went into a nose dive after that, losing their last three games of the season and then promptly losing to St. Michael's in the first round of the ISAA tournament. What was worse was that this was St. Michael's first year with a basketball program.
Whitburn didn't fare any better. Woodfield tore us apart the next day, just as all the accusations and finger pointing started. Jared was in the stands for our game, watching his best friend and his soon-to-be schoolmates (since he immediately transferred after the expulsion) get whipped by the Eagles.
It was the last year of the four-team tournament for the conference championship, too. Back in January, they announced that six out of the seven HSAA teams in the Northern Lakes Conference would make the conference tournament the next season. We all suspected that the change was made to appease some ultra-liberal in Morgantown who wanted as many teams to be eligible for the state tournament as possible "to improve the self-esteem of the players."
This season, however, Woodfield walked to the conference title by winning their last three games. Then, they won the conference tourney by beating Newsburg (who beat us, 76-53 in the semis), and advanced to the HSAA final four. There, they ran up against Morgantown West, which was a basketball factory. They had at least one guy go to the McDonald's All-American All-Star Game three years in a row. Just a few years before, they had an alumni end up with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. That is how good they are. They tore apart Woodfield the way the USA Dream Team took apart Olympic opponents. Some weren't even as kind to compare it to that; references in the Morgantown State Journal mentioned that the Eagles "seemed to use the defensive schemes of the Washington Generals."
Meanwhile, as you could guess, Jared was in a massive funk. He transferred to Whitburn for two very important reasons: a.) the state laws regarding school attendance stated that expulsion from private schools made attendance at a public school mandatory; and b.) he had to do it quickly or he would lose any hope of ever playing again. The HSAA and ISAA had rules about transferring from school to school, and in Jared's case, he would have to sit out one whole calendar year. The one-year rule didn't apply if the move was voluntary (as in Chris Smith's case, which meant he only had to sit out the rest of the school year). Nor did it apply if the parents moved into the district (as in Davey Wilson's case, when his parents moved to Whitburn from Thompsonville he was eligible to play for us the moment he stepped through the door).
That summer, me, Chris and Jared went to Riverton for another 3-on-3 tournament sponsored by Riverton State University, which had just become a lower-tier Division I NCAA school. We lost in the winner's bracket finals to Mitch Jordan and two other members of the Riverton North squad. Then, we beat the winning team from the loser's bracket, and turned around and beat Jordan's threesome by a pair.
Only problem was, in the winner's bracket game, Jared and Jordan had banged together going up for a rebound, and Jared twisted his ankle. He gamely kept playing, but by the time we played our fourth game of the day, he couldn't do much more than do the old "toreador" style of defense (you know, "OLE!" as the offensive player goes by you).
Jared insisted that if they had just one more day, let the ankle rest, then take them on, we could have won. This was a point well taken, since he was fine when we finally got home the next day.
There was one last bit of justice that was served out of the expulsion incident. Jared's younger sister, Jenny, still went to St. George's, so Jared's dad and his Uncle Jerry (who was a trial lawyer) brought negligence charges against MacGwire. It turned out that MacGwire not only left his assistant in charge while there was an underage student still in the building, but he also had no intent on returning. Had he not stopped at the local KwikMart and discovered that he didn't have his wallet, he wouldn't have come back to the school at all. (That was why the assistant coach had stepped out of the office as MacGwire came in to hand him his wallet.) The charges stuck, and he was given the pink slip as a teacher and as a coach at St. G's. Gerrold took over as the interim basketball coach. He would resign as AD and coach within a year.
The hearings that led to MacGwire's dismissal included testimony from Tami and Jared. When both acknowledged that nothing improper happened when Tami went into the locker room, the people of Whitburn County believed them. Sympathy for Jared rose even as he finished out the year at Whitburn. Some of the local businessmen who were members of the Panther Pride Booster Club tried unsuccessfully to convince the HSAA to rescind the "one-year rule" for transfer students.
Interestingly, MacGwire managed to get an assistant coaching position at St. Mary's Immaculate University in Riverton. When Coach Mayers finally retired, however, MacGwire didn't get the nod as the head coach. That honor went to you guessed it our head coach, Roger Mason.
Each year, the Panther Pride Booster Club paints a schedule for the boys' and girls' interscholastic teams, and hangs them outside the fieldhouse at the beginning of the new sports season. The schedule for boys' basketball was apparently altered one night, and the date "February 27" was circled in red paint. That was the game against St. George's but everyone knew that it was really the day that Jared came back. And that was the date we were all waiting for.
The wait would be a long one for both Jared and me. At the first home game of the season, I went up for a rebound and came down wrong on my ankle. I knew the second I landed on it that I'd broken it. It hurt like hell, and I had to be carried off the court to the hospital. Jared came down from the stands to help me to the cart, and even went with me and my dad to the hospital.
The break was bad enough where I wasn't going to be playing ball for a couple of months. It didn't help that Chris came down with are you ready for this? the measles while I was gone, and Davey couldn't take up the slack by himself. We rattled off five straight losses, then managed to win the first game of our holiday tournament against St. Michael's when Chris came back. Unfortunately, after the game Davey came down with the flu, and we promptly lost to Shoreland in the championship round. After two more losses, I was finally able to walk without a cane or a soft cast on my foot. I went out and got high-tops that had a Velcro strap across the top, to protect the ankle from further injury. In the first game back, I scored 25 and Davey and Chris scored 21 each, and we whipped up on Marshall at their gym, 87-53. The next game, we all scored over 20 again and beat Chemequon by 22. Everyone at school was hyped up. Even though we were 4-9, we still had seven games left, and four of them were at home.
The only problem was that the next game was against the team that had won the state title two years ago, Riverton Tech. They'd lost three in a row to Riverton North and Washura West, and were ready to take out their frustrations on us.
It was bad from the opening tip. Chris went up to take the jump, and the other center, Willie Green, just plucked the ball out of the air. Two seconds later, he fired a pass to forward Marty Williamson, an all-HSAA team member the previous season, who went up and laid it in. He then promptly stole the in-bounds and laid it in again. We managed to get the ball to half court, but then Williamson swiped it away from Chris and went down for another uncontested lay-in. I called for the no-dribble play, where we pass it up the court and try to set up a shot on the perimeter. We got three clean passes, actually caught them slightly out of position, and I fired a shot from behind the three-point line. Trouble is, Green timed his leap and swatted the ball down as it went up. The ball caromed off my good leg and shot into the stands. I went down like a shot. The ref didn't buy it, but my leg was hurting. Turned out that he just bruised it, but I was on the bench for the rest of the game with an ice pack on my leg. They took the ball down the court and scored again, and the rout was on. Tech ended up shutting us out in the first half yes, that's right, the entire first half by the score of 36-0. We actually made a few baskets on their second stringers, but we never got within more than 40 points of them. The final score was 62-12. All 12 of our points came after halfway through the third period.
We didn't recover from that game. Woodfield promptly beat us at home that Saturday, and three days later we lost to Newsburg at Newsburg. On February 23, with four games to go in the season, Woodfield beat us again to put us squarely in last place in the conference. Marshall, who was having just as bad a season as we were, actually beat Newsburg at Newsburg to put us one game down for the final spot in the conference tournament.
When we got back to the locker room, there was a note on the blackboard by the coaches' office: "MANDATORY PRACTICE MONDAY, 11:00 PM." We all knew what it was about.
The practice was on the first day of Spring Break, but no one seemed to care much about being on vacation. We don't usually have many people at practice, but when word got around about the 11 o'clock practice, a lot of the more supportive students showed up beforehand along with Tam and the varsity cheerleading squad. We ran through some drills, but everyone knew that the real reason why we were there so late was in the old Boys' Gym of Whitburn High School. He was playing intramural basketball on a Monday night, keeping himself in shape. Katie was assigned by Coach Mason to keep tabs on him that night. While we were going through the drills, we kept sneaking looks at the clock on the one end of the fieldhouse to see what time it was. Everyone was getting antsy, and just about five minutes before midnight, Coach Mason got out his cell phone and called over to the gym.
He blew the whistle on practice, and called all the players over. He told us that he wanted to show us something. He took out a duffel bag, unzipped it and pulled out a brand-new Whitburn jersey. It had the number 12 on it. We all knew who it was for.
"There's this kid who wants to play for us," he told us. "I want to know if we should let him play on our team or not. We have room on our team roster, so none of you have to demote to the JV for him to play." A smile came upon his lips. "Anyone have any objections?" We all started shaking our heads vigorously. "Then it's settled. He'll be coming over to join us any minute."
Tam had already stationed herself over by the door of the fieldhouse, looking up the hallway by the pool towards the main school. "He's coming!" she shouted out. Just then, the school bell rang to indicate it was now midnight. Jared came strolling into the fieldhouse, arm-in-arm with Katie and Tami.
The kids let out a long cheer, then chanted, "Jared! Jared! JARED!" Mason quieted them down for a moment, and then turned to Jared to hand him his new uniform.
"Here you go, Mr. Thompson, you're on the team." Another spontaneous eruption from the students. Mason quieted them down again. "Now, as it is, you're an hour late for practice. So after you go in there and change, you've got free throws to do." Jared shook his head as the kids in the stands cheered him out the door.
For the next five minutes, the entire assembly started the chant, "WE are WHIT-burn!" with the staccato claps. Jared emerged from the locker room with his fresh uni's and a great big smile on his face. Mason blew the whistle before the crowd could start up again.
"Thompson! Go up to that line and give me 10 free-throws." Mason had a team policy that, if you were late for practice, you would have to step up to the line and sink 10 free-throws. If you missed any of them before you sank the 10, that was how many laps you had to run around the court to make up for it. I remember one kid who missed 20 shots and only made five of the free throws. After he made the fifth one, coach just told him to go run laps until he told him to stop. The kid collapsed from exhaustion after about 15 laps. He quit the team the next day.
Jared knew full well about this policy, and didn't flinch at all. Instead, he calmly went to the line and proceeded to sink one free-throw after another. One after one, they went in like clockwork. He hit five in a row, then six, then seven, then eight. The ninth one bounced off the back of the rim, bounced straight in the air, and went swish right into the basket. Everyone had stopped to watch him do this. He then bounced the ball a couple of times, looked up, let out a breath, and sank the last free-throw. The crowd erupted as the ball hit the floor. The entire team went over to mob him.
Mason was still in charge of the practice, however. He was smiling like the Cheshire Cat, but he was still in charge. "Scrimmage!" he shouted out. "Jared, you're with White." Half of the guys went over to the bench and grabbed red vests and slipped them over their jerseys. It wasn't surprising that Davey, Chris and me were on the White team with Jared.
Jared admitted he was a little tired from playing intramural ball that night, but he was energized when he saw all the students waiting for him in the fieldhouse. And Jared put on a show for them. Chris and I just kept feeding him passes, and he kept shooting away and made basket after basket. His "D" was tenacious, and when he swiped the ball away from sophomore guard Jason Wiemer, he took the ball down the court, launched himself and slammed the ball home with a two-hander. I knew he could do it, but it was the force with which he did it that energized the crowd.
At that point, Mason knew he was beat. He whistled practice over, and told everyone to be there tomorrow night for the game against St. George's.
The electricity in the air was intense at the Fieldhouse. Everyone knew this was it, the return of the Jared Thompson. And he did not disappoint. He rattled off 12 points in the first period, and we dominated against his old school, 94-28. He went for a team-high 42 points, and even Gerrold came up to shake his hand after the game. The win put us back in a tie for the last tournament spot, but we'd have to win our last home game of the year to clinch the tie breaker. We beat Marshall in our previous meeting, and if we lost to them, they would have the tie breaker of most recent win. That didn't happen. Jared had another 40 points in the first half. He sat out for the entire second half as we registered our first ever 100-point game in school history, 107-53. Davey and Chris each had 20 points, and I added 18. We didn't even score in the last three minutes of the game, we were that far ahead. Coach Mason put everyone in, and even Wiemer (who had warmed the bench most of the season) managed to hit a trey for the 100th point of the game.
The last game at St. George's was a tough one. Some of the people in Thompsonville were still upset over Jared's tryst, and the students even tried rattling him when he was introduced by throwing condoms out onto the floor. Jared's response was to break the school record that he never got a chance to break at St. George's he scored 51 points to lead the Panthers over the Crusaders, 98-58. Chris scored 20 behind Jared, and actually claimed the scoring title away from Davey for the season. He knew, however, who the real scoring leader of this team was.
Jared felt vindicated after the game when Gerrold told a reporter for WHIT that "Thompson is probably the greatest player ever to play in this fieldhouse. Bar none."
The last win vaulted us into the tournament as the sixth seed. We would have to go up against #3 Oxford Lakes in the quarterfinals, as the top two teams got a bye in the first round. The Lakers didn't have a chance against us, and we beat them soundly behind Jared's 38 and my 24. Two days later, we would play Woodfield in the semifinal game at Woodfield Athletic Center, immediately after the other semifinal between Newsburg and Shoreland. Newsburg handily defeated Shoreland, and we went into hostile territory against the Woodfield Eagles.
Whitburn hadn't beaten Woodfield in basketball in about a decade at that point. But Jared, Chris and Davey all had played Woodfield, and told Coach Mason that the way they beat them years ago could work again. He agreed, and emphasized to everyone on the team to let Jared and the St. George transfers to dictate the tempo of the game.
What he didn't expect was how slow that tempo would be. Woodfield was stubborn on not letting us get inside for any shots, and they were guarding close to deny the trey. We won the opening tip-off, but couldn't work it inside for the entire first period. Davey and Chris took a couple of shots, but they missed and either Jared or I grabbed the rebound and shot it back out to reset the play. The last shot of the period we took missed, and the score was still tied at nothing after eight minutes of play.
The Woodfield fans weren't too happy about our stalling, but Eagles' coach Rod Maryland was getting more and more upset at his charges. Neither team had any fouls, so Jared just suggested, "Let's let them get into foul trouble. Maryland's gonna try to press us, we just draw fouls and then kill them with free throws."
We went out to start the second period with Woodfield getting the ball on the alternating possession rule. They took the ball down the court, set up for a three on the outside with a screen that left Jose Gonzalez (Miguel's brother) wide open. He put the shot up and missed. Jared came down with the rebound, and tried to wait for the Eagles to clear out defensively. Instead, three of the Woodfield players surrounded Jared and reached in. The ref blew the whistle for the foul, and moved the ball to mid-court. Davey got the ball, wedged it in past the Woodfield defender to Jared, who turned around and whack! Another foul. Jared shot a look at the Woodfield bench at Coach Maryland. Then he glanced over to Coach Mason, who just motioned with his hands to settle down.
Jared looked at me, pointed to the sideline with two fingers, and nodded. I knew exactly what he wanted to do. He slipped back to the opposite sideline, waited, then slashed to the basket and leaped. I launched the perfect alley-oop pass to the basket, and he grabbed it and slammed it down. The Whitburn fans went wild.
The Eagles tried to in-bound, and Jared went right after the ball carrier. He got whistled for the foul, and this time it was Woodfield's turn to get the ball from center court. The pass was tipped in the air by Davey, but the Eagles recovered the ball. They didn't rush things, taking a page from our book. However, after two attempts at screening out for a three and missing, Gonzalez had enough. The third time, he took the screen and drove towards the baseline and shot. The ball banked in off the glass, and Woodfield was on the board. We'd managed to keep them scoreless for nearly 12 minutes, though. Jared took the in-bound pass from Davey and was immediately set upon by two Eagle defenders. Another foul, another possession at half-court. Davey tossed the in-bound pass to me this time, and I went to pass to Jared. Gonzalez took off and intercepted it, ran down the court and went in for the uncontested lay-up.
Except for one thing he missed the lay-up. The ball went clanging off the back of the rim and back into my waiting hands. I grabbed the ball, turned and fired a baseball pass to Jared. Gonzalez was scrambling to get back to our side of the court, but I picked him up. Jared drove the lane, shot and drew the foul as the ball drained the net.
Jared calmly went to the line and sank the free throw to make it 5-2 with less than four minutes left in the half. Woodfield went down the court, worked it in and Gonzalez sent up a 15-foot jumper to pull the Eagles within one.
Predictably, the Eagles fouled us on the in-bound pass for the fifth team foul. That was the last foul they had to give. We got the ball at mid-court again, and Davey set up the rotation to Jared. Jared backed the ball in, and we set up to stall. They went back into a 2-3 zone, and tried to keep us from launching a three. Jared was patient. He knew that we still had the one point lead. We did the stop-and-handoff play a few times, getting the clock down to about a minute to go. The Woodfield fans were booing us unmercifully.
Then, suddenly, with about 45 seconds to go, Maryland yelled out, "Amoebae!" Suddenly, every Woodfield player pulled back from their position towards the middle. Jared looked at me for a second, set up and fired a three from the top of key. The ball swooshed through the net, and we were up 8-4. On the in-bound play, Davey went after the ball and hacked the Eagle player. Second team foul. We pressed them on the in-bounds, and Woodfield Junior Tim Waterson had to call a time-out before the five-second rule was called.
There were 39 seconds left on the clock. Coach Mason just said one thing in our huddle "Zone." We broke the huddle and went back out on the court. We laid off the in-bound pass, set back in the zone, and kept them away from the basket. They worked it around, tried to set up for a clear-out, but couldn't do it. As the seconds ticked down, Gonzalez tried a last-second drive to the basket, but got called for the charge on Davey. It was the Eagles' sixth team foul, and we were in the bonus with five seconds left. What was worse for Woodfield was that it was Gonzalez's third personal foul.
Davey went down to the free throw line, and sank both free-throws to make it 10-4. Waterson lobbed a pass down court to Gonzalez, who took a last-second off-balance shot that bounced wildly off the backboard at the buzzer.
We got the ball back for the third period, and it was more of the same. They had five fresh fouls to use, and they used them quickly. All five of their starters had at least two fouls three minutes into the third period. And we still hadn't taken a shot in the half. After the fifth foul, Maryland called time-out, then put three of his bench players out on the floor. Jared smiled when he saw these three guys. So did Davey and Chris. I looked at Jared, sort of puzzled. He mouthed to me, "Jay-Vee!" and put up three fingers and two fingers. It suddenly dawned on me these were the JV guys he and St. George's JV had beaten badly two years ago. Jared made some hand signals to Davey and Chris, and Chris in-bounded the ball to Jared. Chris immediately switched over to the opposite side, where Davey had been. Both took their defenders with them, and Jared drove the crease that opened up. Easy lay-in, 12-4.
Maryland started pointing around like a madman. Waterson in-bounded to one of the "JV" players, and Jared just slapped the ball cleanly out of his hands and turned and laid the ball in. 14-4. We all came up, following Jared's lead, and pressed the Whitburn bench players as hard as we could. I got in the face of one of them, and got called for the reach. We kept pressing on the in-bounds play at half-court, and one of the bench players, a tall skinny kid, dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds. We took over possession, and brought the ball in uncontested. I gave the ball to Jared, and he dribbled around over to the right. Davey then came up, got the ball from Jared, and executed the perfect give-and-go. Jared laid it in to put us up by a dozen.
That was it for Maryland. He put Gonzalez back in, along with their Senior point guard, Gary Kriesz. That didn't help them much. They couldn't work it in, and Gonzalez got frustrated and tried to elbow his way in to the basket. The ref called the foul, and the recipient, Chris, went to the line. He sank both to put us up, 18-4. Maryland sent in the rest of his starters (Marty Mathews and Abdul Muhammad), but we were ready for them. We dropped back, and Jared even struck a "bring it on" pose, beckoning the ball carrier to come down the court. They worked it around, launched a three and finally scored their first points of the half.
We had confidence on our side, though. Davey brought the ball up the court with purpose, then passed it over to Chris. Chris dribbled, worked it in a bit, then passed it to me. I worked it around to Mike Martino, our "big man" in the middle. He made a perfect pass to Jared in the clear, who let loose with a trey and made it. 21-7, Panthers. They scored once more, and Jared sank another trey before the period was over, making it 24-9 through three periods.
Woodfield got the ball on the alternating possession rule to start the period. Waterson made the in-bound pass to Gonzalez, who took it up the court. And that was when things blew up for Woodfield. Gonzalez went up for the shot and was called for a rather obvious elbow to the face of Mike. The ball went in, and when the ref waved off the basket, Gonzalez went absolutely freaking nuts. Mike was on the floor, holding his nose, while Maryland was trying to restrain Gonzalez. After a while, the ref had enough and slapped the "T" for technical on Gonzalez. It was his sixth, so he was gone, regardless. Two assistant coaches had to nearly drag Gonzalez off to the locker rooms.
Coach Mason called a time out, and our trainer and some EMT's from Woodfield Rescue Services worked on Martino. Mike got up, with blood droplets on his jersey, and managed to walk dazedly back to the bench. The EMT's walked him over to the side door where the ambulance was waiting, and they took him to the hospital.
The rest of the game wasn't pretty. Jared took all four free throws for Mike, and sank all four to make it 28-9. We exchanged possessions and baskets, and when the buzzer sounded, the final was 42-21. Jared had 30 points, he dished off four assists in the final period to get Chris, Davey and me all up to four points each.
The best thing was, we were heading for the conference finals against Newsburg.
The finals were a dιnouement (that's one of those big words I got from Katie) for us, of sorts. We came out gunning against Newsburg, and won it handily, 56-38. Jared didn't play the last six minutes, since we were up by 18. We were awarded the conference trophy, cut down the nets and had a healthy post-game celebration over at Jared's place. Best thing of all was that Mike's broken nose was healing properly. He'd be ready to play in the State Tournament (even though we started calling him "Jason" for his protective mask).
Then we found out who we'd be playing in the first round of the tourney: Lakeside Washington. They were undefeated on the season, a perfect 24-0 on the season. They also hadn't lost a single game by less than eight points all season. We were ranked as the number eight seed in the tournament, and thus drew the number one seed in the first round. Unlike the ISAA Tournament, the HSAA didn't re-seed pairings after each round. Instead, the winner of 1 vs. 8 played the winner of 4 vs. 5, while the winner of 2 vs. 7 played the winner of 3 vs. 6.
Lakeside had a lot of decent players, but the scary guy was Conrad Horton. He was already an All-American player, and he had a scholarship to go to North Carolina to play for Dean Smith. Horton was the one who just dazzled everyone. When we went down to Morgantown for the tournament, the State Journal listed him as one of the top three players in the state. The other two were Morgantown West's Barry Thomas and Jared's old foe, Riverton North's Mitch Jordan. Not a word was said about Jared.
The tempo of the game was set from the opening tip. We got the ball, and Jared took the ball in. Horton guarded Jared closely, but didn't really see him as much of a threat. Jared gave him a head-fake, juked and drove and sank the lay-in. Horton took the ball down the court, and did the exact same thing. This went on for most of the rest of the game: the rest of us touching the ball momentarily, then Jared and Horton going into their game of one-on-one. The score was tied at 16 after one, then 24 after two, then 40 after three. All of the points came from the two of them.
Before the fourth quarter, Jared pulled me, Chris and Davey aside. "I don't know if he's got much of a supporting cast," he told us. "I'm going to try to work the ball to you guys, then clear him out. See if you can get around the others."
Washington took the in-bound for the fourth quarter. Horton brought it down, and instead of finding Jared on him, I was guarding him. He half-sneered at me, and promptly drove the basket. Jared planted himself at the side, and Horton didn't see him. Wham! The two of them went crashing into the Whitburn cheerleaders behind the basket. Tami managed to catch Jared, but Horton went barreling into the post of the basket. He stepped back, woozy for a moment, then turned around to see the ref pointing at him.
He then walked over to the bench, apparently groggy from the encounter with Jared. The coach hastily called a time out, then grabbed Horton by the shoulder to try to ask him why he was leaving the game. That was when he passed out, right into the arms of his coach.
After that, we lit up the rest of the Washington squad. We ran off a dozen unanswered points before Washington could even realize what happened. They managed to get Horton back to his senses, but he didn't have the same effect when he went back in. He managed to get off a jumper to get back within 10 points, but then we went on another tear. We scored 10 more unanswered points, without Jared taking a single shot. After we took a 62-42 lead, Jared signaled for time and took himself out of the game. Horton seemed to think it was going to be his time to take the game over, but Chris, Davey and me put on a clinic, scoring another dozen points. The final score was 74-44. Horton had scored all 44 of his team's points. Jared also scored 44 but it was the rest of us who beat Lakeside Washington.
Afterwards, it was discovered that Horton had a mild concussion from the collision with the basket, and couldn't concentrate for the rest of the game. The concussion was what eventually led to him losing his scholarship at UNC. He apparently developed double vision, and couldn't tell which basket to shoot at.
Morgantown West had won their quarterfinal game against Marbury Central, and it looked like it was another case of one great player (Barry Thomas) and 11 other guys. Jared tested that theory early instead of late in this contest, and it became painfully obvious that Thomas was the only offense Morgantown West had. Though the partisan crowds at MSU Fieldhouse were vocal, Thomas couldn't shake Jared's tenacious defense. He limited Thomas to only 12 first half points, while we lit up the rest of the West squad for 24. Jared was working so hard at containing Thomas that midway through the third period, he only had 10 points. Thomas, however, was stuck at a dozen, and would get only four more. The rest of the West squad only had four points, while Chris, Davey and me poured it on. With a minute to go, we were up 50-24. Coach Mason sat all of us down and put in the reserves. The reserves promptly scored four times in the last minute to give us a 58-24 win. Jason Wiemer scored twice, including the last bucket on a steal of amazingly Barry Thomas.
We went nuts when the horn sounded. We were going to be the first Whitburn High team to play for the state title in basketball in school history. What's more, we were going to be going up against Riverton North and Jared had a score to settle with Mitch Jordan.
The joy of victory wasn't going to last long, though.
The Morgantown State Journal was the first to publish the information about Jared's "expulsion" from St. George's. They even found out that Tami was "still" on the Whitburn cheerleading squad. They had the photo of when Jared had fallen into the crowd after colliding with Horton, and noted that "the girl who was apparently involved in the incident causing his expulsion was the one who caught him."
As soon as Jared heard about this, he gave a copy of the Journal to his Uncle Jerry. Mr. Thompson proceeded to call up the paper and inform them that they were being sued in Whitburn County court for libel against a minor.
The revival of the whole incident turned a time that should have been special into one of anger. Phone calls to Tami and Katie's house were coming from various papers who wanted to confirm the story. Some TV reporters, including this Geraldo Rivera-like creature from Riverton's WRTN-TV who tried to "ambush" Tami as she was leaving for Morgantown for the championship.
Jared and I managed to find a few quiet moments in our hotel room in Morgantown. Coach Mason and my dad had arranged that we'd be alone, away from the throngs of reporters and other people who wanted to grill Jared.
We talked for a long time. He told me that he was going to propose to Tami at the graduation ceremony in June. I laughed. "How romantic," I told him. "After all of this grief."
"Hey, why not," he told me. "She's stuck with me through this, the rest of our lives should be a cinch."
I started this whole story by saying that things just happened the way they did, and that I never planned for things to wind up the way they did. Well, I never planned that we'd be in the state finals. I didn't plan that we'd win it on a last-second buzzer-beater shot over Riverton North.
I didn't even plan on taking that shot.
I also didn't plan on Jared not being on the court with me when I took the shot. Jared had fouled out of the game moments before, which led to Riverton taking the lead with four seconds left. Jordan had contained Jared pretty well, but Jared had taken Mitch off his game at the same time. The game was close, and when Davey lobbed the pass down the court to me, I just tried to get a clear shot away.
It went in.
I still have that photo today, showing me lofting the ball towards the hoop, looking for all the world like Greg Louganis about to do a jack-knife dive for double difficulty.
I remember landing on the floor, seeing the ball go in, raising my arms in triumph, and being mauled by the entire team. I remember having one of the nets draped around my neck like a scarf, and squeezing Jared hard while our pep band kept playing the school song.
All these years later, the framed photo of the team around the trophy hangs in my office. The kids look at the photo, and usually make some comment about how goofy I looked. But then, when they step outside the PhysEd office and the boys' locker room and look at the Whitburn High School trophy case, they see the State Boys' Basketball Championship trophy sitting there, large as ever.
And I can tell they are really in awe.
A voice behind me brings me back down to earth:
"Ah, Mertzen, I'd have made that shot if Jordan hadn't been in my jockstrap all day."
And I turn to laugh at the snide remark of my boss, the head coach at Whitburn High School.
"Yeah, Jared, but don't forget that I took that shot and made it."
"Bet you a soda I can take you in one-on one," he says. I laugh again.
"You're on." And we both jog into the fieldhouse for another game of impromptu hoops.
Just like old times. Just like it's always been.
AFTERWORD I wrote this for a friend of mine who happened to work at the Whitburn Intelligencer. He was from Lakeside, and I had met him when I went to Lakeside Tech for my degree in education.
We kept in touch after we graduated, and last year, he managed to get the position of Sports Editor at the Intelligencer. It wasn't a move upward, but he knew it was a step in the right direction.
Anyways, once he set foot in the county, he was inundated with stories about Jared. The people of Whitburn and Thompsonville were still abuzz over his performance and how he was seen as the primary force behind the Panthers' state tourney championship run. He knew that I was a good friend of Jared, so he asked me to write the truth behind the stories he was hearing.
So, I got on my computer and started typing away. When he read the finished product, he raised his eyebrows a few times, and shook his head several more times.
"This isn't a biography, Bill," he told me. "This is a legend. There's no way all this stuff could have happened to one guy." I laughed, because I knew it did. So that was where the title came in: The Legend of Whitburn County.
I let Jared take a look at the story, and though he wasn't too thrilled about the little bet that he and his future wife made back in his junior year, he gave his approval. The story was published in the paper, and many people involved said it was accurate. MacGwire, of course, had no comment.
The story was chosen as a feature of our 10-year high school reunion a year ago. So many people were influenced by Jared's life and our state championship, and they said as much in our reunion memory book.
There was one thing I was asked about frequently, however: What happened to the other people I mentioned in the story? Well, I think you know what happened with me and Jared, and Tami and Katie and even Luann. But some of the other people had very strange twists of fate.
MacGwire, for example, moved out of state after he lost the job at St. Mary's Immaculate to Coach Mason. We haven't heard much about him since then last time I heard anything, he was a coach at some Indian reservation school in Arizona or such.
As for Mason, he's had a relatively successful run at SMI, getting the team to the NCAA Division II title game a few years ago. Most notably, it was Coach Mason's move to St. Mary's that gave Jared the head coaching position here at Whitburn.
Petroski made an unsuccessful bid for the Congressional seat that was open in the Whitburn County area. Most notably, he was faulted for wasting the surplus over the sale of Thompsonville High on his own salary. He managed to get a job at a political think-tank in Morgantown, a group called Focus On Education. I get mail from them every now and again and it's somewhat laughable the ideological stuff they throw in these pamphlets.
Jared's uncle, Jerry Thompson, successfully ran for County Supervisor a few years ago. He's been one of the best County Supervisors we've had in the county in a long while.
A couple of years ago, the ISAA, as a result of budget problems, ceased operations as an organization. The HSAA took over supervision of all public and private interscholastic sports in the state, and consolidated the state team sport tournaments into separate divisions.
By doing this, unfortunately, Whitburn will never get a chance to go up against Riverton North for a rematch of the state title game Riverton's high schools are classified as Division A schools, and we are a Division B school barely.
As for some of my teammates: Chris Smith is now an investment advisor for Morgantown State Bank's Whitburn branch. Davey Wilson is partnering with his dad in the family business of home building and real estate. Jason Wiemer is in the furniture business. Mike Martino, after his brush with Jose Gonzalez, ended up becoming what else an EMT. Jerry White is the news director of WHIT radio, dabbling as a photographer for the Intelligencer. Of course, George Kryzniki had the last laugh on all of us he was elected Mayor of the city of Whitburn this past November.
And what of some of our opponents? Well, the Gonzalez brothers are executive VP's of Save-All Foods down in Riverton. I already mentioned Conrad Horton last we heard he was living down in the Carolinas, but no one was quite sure what he was doing. Barry Thomas and Mitch Jordan both went on to play at Morgantown State, but neither managed to get any sniffs from the NBA. Jordan is now the Head Coach at his alma mater, Riverton North. Thomas is an assistant coach at Morgantown State.
Father Michael Parrish is still the principal at St. George's, and Rod Maryland still gets upset as Woodfield's head coach when Jared employs the slowdown against his team. Maryland got the last laugh, though, when Woodfield finally won a state title two years after our run.
A few other things the "Streaker's Alley" has been remodeled so the hallway doesn't exist anymore. The renovation project was one of the many reasons why Petroski was run out of town on a rail after the election. HSAA rules now prohibit coaches from leaving the school building while students are still under their supervision. Also, the HSAA has eased restrictions on transfers, especially ones regarding disciplinary actions. Essentially, if a transfer results because of disciplinary action, and it is proven that the student did not violate any state statutes, the student may transfer to another school without penalty.
Our championship trophy, however, still sits in the trophy case of Whitburn's Fieldhouse. And Jared and I still smile when we walk past it even if those who weren't there still find it hard to believe the Legend of Whitburn County.