I hate to say it but reaching the end of my Junior season with the Sons was such a relief. Simply surviving the season was truly an accomplishment and I was just so proud of myself for staying gracious and humble...to the very end. I was fine physically but mentally and emotionally? I was spent to say the least.
However, the air of change was blowing and, for the first time in a while, I felt a real sense of hope and optimism heading into my Senior year. Our Varsity coach stepped down and his replacement was none other than my old Junior High coach Mark Swan! Words simply cannot describe how elated I was when I first heard the news. I absolutely loved playing for Coach Swan during my first season with the team and it meant a lot the way he would offer me words of encouragement from the stands during our JV games. I was good friends with his sons Jared and Zach too and we would often get together to play basketball or simply have fun. And despite my Junior High season being such a challenging one, I still remember standing on the three point line after the final game of the season with Coach Swan telling me that next year, I would be draining threes for the Varsity from that very spot. Considering what I had been through, can you imagine what I felt when Coach Swan said that? Next season simply couldn't come fast enough! Coach Swan's incessant belief in me was absolutely huge and believe you me...I was not going to let him or any of my teammates down. I had always worked out and practiced throughout the offseason but this time, I was going to take things to a completely different level.
As the 1998-99 season loomed and practice began, I found myself soaking in every moment and simply enjoying the ride. Being a Senior, I knew that this would likely be my final hurrah with the Sons and I wanted to make it count. And despite my confidence being quite high, I was still nervous and simply tingling with excitement. Oh that nervous, tingling feeling before a big game. There is truly nothing like it! Despite my fantastic relationship with Coach Swan, I still didn't want to get my hopes up. The prospect of starting for the Varsity team was like a dream and yet...if I didn't start, I had decided that I would embrace whatever role Coach wanted me to have. I trusted Coach Swan and I knew without a doubt that he would treat us fairly. That I knew for sure.
Well, in a rusty old lockerroom before our opening game of the 1998-99 season versus the Homeschool Lions (our friendly rival and a fantastic player in his own right, Jason Wolfgang led this team), it finally happened. I was honestly shell-shocked because Coach Swan announced me as one of our starters! Me! Matt Hull!! :) I simply could not believe it and inside, I was beaming. I would actually get to play alongside veteran Sons like Carey Jones (he still gets my vote as the greatest player to ever play for the Sons), Jesse Garner (a fiery player who could through a pass with unreal velocity...and "take it away" in like fashion), Jared Swan (a sharp-shooter as well as a great passer) and Brandon Brown (a smaller, fiesty player...like me!).
I just prayed that I wouldn't wake up from this incredible dream because I didn't want it to end! And before I knew it, the game started and the season officially kicked off! I recall everyone playing very well for both teams. I even scored 7 points in the first half (after collecting 0 for the Varsity my Junior year) along with passing the ball well and playing sound, mistake-free basketball. I was having a blast!
However, early in the second half, Coach Swan took me out of the game so he could tell me that he wanted to see more from me. Unlike our previous coach, Coach Swan didn't want me to play it safe and defer to my teammates; He wanted me to take charge and shoot more and play more aggressive...the way that I had always wanted to play! I couldn't help but smile because, despite my best efforts, I still needed Coach Swan to push me to play freely and to be completely myself out there.
All I can say is "Message received!" because, once Coach put me back in the game, I seized the opportunity like there was no tomorrow and followed his advise to a "T." The second half was like something out of a dream too because the basket suddenly looked like an ocean (my teammate J.r. Ramsey always loved to say that) and my shots began falling like hotcakes! I scored 15 points in the second half (most of them in the 4th quarter) and I ended up leading the team in scoring that night with a career high 22 points!
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and my late-game heroics, the last laugh came at the hands of Jason Wolfgang who had the nerve to hit the game-winning shot with only a few seconds remaining! The rascal! ;) It was a disappointing loss for sure but it really was a great game with both teams bringing their very best. I was just so grateful to be part of a game like that!
And I cannot lie...it was oh-so-sweet to finally play real, meaningful minutes at this level and to prove to myself (and any remaining doubters) that I belonged with the big boys! The adversity that I had faced in the past only made this moment that much more special. It was probably the least disappointing loss I can remember because I felt like a real winner that night.
I will always hold Coach Swan in the highest regard for always believing in me...even when my confidence wavered a bit. We all need someone to encourage us and believe in us and Coach Swan (along with my dad who was an assistant coach that season btw!) never stopped believing. That type of positive energy is something that I try to bring with me everywhere I go. It does make a difference too!
Without a doubt, that game against the Homeschool Lions represented a culmination of sorts. All of the YMCA games, my rough 7th grade year, the inspiring AIA basketball camp, and my previous three seasons with the Homeschool Sons...these events all led up to that moment when I finally got to toss the monkey hanging on my back (the one that says "You will never be tall enough or strong enough or simply good enough to play high school basketball.") into a nearby tree or something! Sometimes, you've got to show some grit and real determination and be fiesty as heck to reach your dreams. The way I see it, Jesus is a Warrior who can be incredibly fiery and feisty when necessary. He was certainly no pansy and sometimes, it takes that fire to succeed in a world that is cold and heartless. And to think...the simple game of basketball taught me that!
I am happy to say that the rest of my Senior year was an absolute blast as well! I would prove that opening night was no fluke either as I went on to score more than 14 points per game that year! We really had a special group too. The chemistry was fantastic, everyone was so unselfish (four of our starters averaged double figures), and it seemed like someone different would step it up each night. Carey and Jesse were our co-MVPs as either one of them could go off at any given time. And there were times when Jared would drop a 25-spot or I could give us 20+ points as well! You just never knew with us! We all shared in the glory and everyone chipped in during that magical season. I still smile when I look back and remember some of the intimate chats we shared and even silly, goofy moments that every team needs at times. It's funny how certain events that seem insignificant at the time can make a real, lasting impact on a young man's life.
One of my most memorable moments happened during a home game against our crosstown rival: ICA (Indiana Christian Academy). For some reason, every time we played ICA, it would wind up being a very tight, nip-and-tuck type of game. We had already beaten ICA by three points in a thriller at their gym earlier in the season and in the rematch at our place, you could tell that they wanted payback in the worst way. They were a very solid, well-rounded team like us which made the rivalry that much more special too. And this particular game was very well-played both ways and it looked for the world like it would be decided in the waning moments. However, we took a real hit when Jesse, our fiery co-captain and defensive catalyst, fouled out of the game. This was quite the blow too because Jesse was the type of guy who could light a fire under you and his intensity on the court just rubbed off on everyone! Jesse's game was the perfect compliment to Carey's quiet-yet-lethal game too.
So without Jesse on the court, who was going to give us that crucial late-game spark? Well, it sure didn't look like I was qualified for the job because very late in the game (with maybe two minutes left), I was at the left wing and threw an ill-advised pass to the point which got picked off and led to an effortless layup for ICA. However, we continued to battle and, with around 20-25 seconds left in the game, we found ourselves down just one with possession of the ball! It wasn't anything flashy but I remember receiving a pass, driving into the lane, and tossing up one of those difficult running jumpers. It wasn't the sort of shot that I would normally take (or even practice!) but it just kind of happened that way. The ball bounced precariously around the rim a few times before finally deciding to just fall through the center. Yes!!! The fans just went crazy and I suddenly realized that I had possibly made the biggest Varsity shot of my career...on a shot I never even used! Now there were still 15-20 seconds remaining so the game was far from over (at least in basketball terms) but, by golly...we had a real chance to pull this off! And thanks to Carey's solid defense, we managed to get the stop we needed! With Carey inbounding the ball, I remember running in his direction, receiving the pass, securing it, and getting immediately fouled.
It was still a one-point game with enough time left (5-10 seconds) for ICA to get off a very good shot. I knew that I absolutely had to make these free throws for us to win the game. But there was Jesse...good old Jesse, with a towel in his hand and he was waving it like a madman and cheering me on like there was no tomorrow!
Nothing can describe what it is like to take free throws of that magnitude either. You simply cannot simulate that particular feeling in practice...no matter how hard you try. Only through real-game experience can you understand a moment like that. Now I can't speak for everyone but for me personally, it felt like butterflies in my stomach combined with tingling excitement and nervousness. If I looked calm and composed at the free throw line that night, it was an illusion because I was very, very nervous! I won't lie about that!
In any case, I walked up to the free throw line, took a deep breath, dribbled the ball three times which was my routine (still is too!), shot the free throw, and swished it! Nothing but nylon, baby! I remember turning around and pumping my fist because I knew how big of a shot that was. The second free throw felt even better and it rang true as well. Yeah!! We had a three-point lead and we would need it because, while ICA's desperation three-point attempt came up short, they would make a quick layup to pull within one point. However, we quickly inbounded the ball, time expired, and the game was ours!
It really was an epic win for us and a fantastic game too! And I didn't mention this before but what made the game even more special to me was that there were so many longtime Sons fans and even some alumni present. My wonderful grandparents had even made the trip and, while I didn't quite catch it, my dad told me after the game that they were standing and applauding during the game's final moments. Getting to be the hero is one thing but to do it in front of family members and loved ones? It's priceless. What more could a 17-year old want, right?
Unfortunately, like with all of the best moments in life, nothing lasts forever and even this glorious season began to wind down. We made sure to leave a lasting impression of it on our memory banks though because the final stretch of the season was so much fun! First, we played in a four-team Tournament on the road and, despite my pedestrian performance in the first game against Community Christian School (ironic considering that the school I attended in my youth goes by the same exact name...it's where my kickball story happened btw!), my teammates covered for me and we were able to put CCS away fairly easily.
This win put us in the championship game against the host school and I vowed to myself that I would play much better that evening. One moment that I still recall vividly is my dad encouraging all of us to seize the day and to make the most of this moment and leave everything out there on the court. We had a real chance to win something special and we knew it would take a strong effort from everyone to make it happen.
Now the fans for the opposing team were very loud with their cowbells and cheers so this was a true road game for sure. And yet, despite the hostile environment, there was a calm aura surrounding our team. As the game started, I remember finding an opening in the left corner, receiving the pass, and just nailing that first 3-point shot of the game. Bang! That was a huge moment for me because I typically would play my best games when I got involved early in the game. And this game would be a very different animal for sure because I brought it! Despite my sound play though, it was Jesse who carried us to the championship because he broke the Sons record by scoring a whopping 44 points...in a championship game...on the road! It was simply unreal and I remember the awesome feeling of having this huge 25+ point lead in the fourth quarter. The fans for the other team were relentless and even then, they were cheering loudly. And even our superhero Jesse needed a little late-game assistance when he cramped up on the court. Hey...you try scoring 44 points without cramping up! In any case, Jesse won MVP honors for the tournament and it was well-deserved. And the drive home couldn't have been any more enjoyable than this. We were the champs and we had our 1st-place metals to prove it!
The final game of the season was such a memorable one as well. We played the very same team that we opened up against in the Homeschool Lions and it would wind up being Carey, Jesse, Jared, and Brandon's final game with the Sons. I was a Senior as well but I was keeping mum about my future. It was still up in the air due to my unique situation as a homeschooler (read on).
Like with most of our games, it was a night game and I can still remember a fierce thunderstorm raging outside during the game. It created such a unique atmosphere and let me tell you...lightning was about to strike inside the building as well. Carey Jones, the same Carey who introduced me to the Homeschool Sons three years previously was not about to go quietly into that good night. Carey truly saved his best for last because he would go on to break Jesse's record by one point with a legendary 45 point performance! It was simply not to be believed and I can't even remember what I scored or how I did that night to be honest! It was truly Carey's finest hour with the Sons. We won our final game to send the Seniors off properly and even exact a little revenge on the Lions for that tough opening night loss as well.
So there you have it. The 1998-99 Sons would finish the season with a 13-8 record which is certainly respectable. To be fair, we did hit a rough patch fairly late in the year when we lost 4 consecutive games but the way we finished the season more than made up for it. All of my years with the Sons were special in different ways but, of all the teams I played on personally, that one was the greatest!
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