COLUMBIA — The piercing sound of coach Jim Scanlon’s whistle signals his players to gather at center court. This Tuesday practice, like all Rock Bridge boys basketball practices this season, is structured and mechanized. A strict schedule organizes water breaks, free-throw shooting, scrimmaging and running through offensive plays.
Under Scanlon’s authority, the team's conduct is disciplined. Focused on its most anticipated game of the season Friday against Chaminade in the semifinals of the Class 5 state tournament, the Bruins are nothing but business on the court.
But after practice, the players hurry to sophomore guard Justin Miller’s home for a team dinner. Surrounded by family and friends, the intense practice atmosphere quickly disappears, and the team’s demeanor changes.
The players’ families have also hosted team dinners before district and sectional play this year. Although the state tournament is arguably the most stressful time in a team’s season, senior guard Skylar Tolson says an escape from basketball, even if brief, is necessary to succeed.
“We play six days a week for five months,” Tolson says. “Sometimes after practice we just need to relax.”
The Bruins never appear worried about semifinals in the hours after Tuesday’s practice. Instead, the Miller’s basement fills with laughter.
Senior Briton Rudd and sophomore Matt Kelly play a competitive ping-pong match, while juniors Skyler Hinton and Trey Millard tease teammates about girlfriends and school.
Over the course of the season, the Bruins have found imaginative ways to ease pressures on the basketball court. Whether it’s repeatedly removing the doors from junior Ricky Kreklow’s jeep, dumping Millard off a kayak into a lake or watching junior varsity player Quinn Gray dressed in a women’s bathing suit in the school fundraiser “Mr. 2009."
“We’re just waiting for his (Kreklow) retaliation,” Hinton says.
The Bruins also add a light-heartedness with nicknames. The players say they rarely refer to each other by their given names.
The team calls Charlie Henderson “Juice Box” in reference to a scene in the Will Ferrell movie “Kicking and Screaming." Jordan “Diesel” Dressler describes himself as a “diesel truck," while Hinton proclaims he is the “Notorious F.A.T." Tolson exemplifies his “Leader Man” nickname as he picks up the team’s dirty plates after dinner.
Teasing isn’t restricted to players. Impersonations of the Rock Bridge coaching staff and parents Tuesday night has Hinton’s face flush with laughter and Rudd and Tolson roaring on the floor.
“Stop it man,” Rudd says to Dressler while holding his chest. “You’re making my stomach hurt.”
Hinton responds, “I know. I’m getting an aneurysm."
Soon Millard's mother comes down to the basement to tell her son it's time to go. The Bruins take one last poke at their teammate before he goes. Being a school night, the team dinner ends shortly after.
Stepping away from the postseason expectations to hang out together seems to have helped limit the external distractions.
"Postseason is stressful regardless," Tolson says. "Not thinking about it makes it seem like just another game."