ASHLAND — It’s moments before tip-off of the Hallsville junior varsity boys basketball team’s last road game of the season and emotions are tense.
Coach Philip Dunkel goes over some last-minute strategies in the bleacher wings while the JV Indians prepare to take the court against Boone County rival Southern Boone High of Ashland on Thursday night. Although these boys are familiar with their Southern Boone opponents—having lost twice to them already this season—they’ve never been in this position before: playing on their rival's home court near the end of a disappointing season.
“(The team's) the only thing you guys got to play for right now. You haven’t come within 20 points of these guys in your career. Period,” coach Dunkel stresses. “You got a chance to step up and start setting the tone for next year. You got a chance to come out, play hard, have fun and be a team. If you do that, we’ll let the chips fall where they are.”
It’s a classic sports moment when the underdog stares at a daunting task squarely in the face with cautious gusto. Freshman Josh Grove makes a gesture with his hand and eyes, in a motion resembling something between a pious Catholic and a land surveyor. “I was trying to get rid of everything off the court and just focus,” he says. Grove’s ritual gesture happens rapidly, but that quirky instant is long enough to understand a thing or two about the young team. No matter what happens on the court, simply playing the game of basketball together is ultimately fun.
The game comes and goes, playing out like many others before . Despite all the young Indians' hustle, they are outmatched and take a tough 33-point loss on the road. It is the kind of loss that could make one wonder if these kids have their sports psyche shaken.
“We always have our bumps and bruises," Dunkel says. "But we’re a family. It’s really about building friendships toward an ultimate goal, and that’s always positive.”
A few days later, and a weekend of teenage distractions, Grove confirms the message that coach Dunkel willed for his team. “I love if you use teamwork, you can accomplish anything,” he says. “We are more of a team now than we’ve ever been.”