Senior Night has come and gone and now the reality has set in: this ride won’t go on forever. These guys have spent six years playing together, but from here on out, every game has the potential to be their last. In order to capture the essence of this year’s senior class of basketball players, one must take a look back to 2014, to where it all began: Willow Springs Middle School.
There basketball players were sorted into A, B, and C teams according to skill level. After two years of competition at WSMS, a select group of players from all three middle school teams moved onto high school. That first year, the program gained 18 freshman athletes. Fast forward four years later, only six remain, along with one more senior, Jacob Blasko, who joined the team this season. And there’s at least one guy left from each of those middle school teams.
“I’m the only one left from C team in our grade,” senior Joe Vastano said. “I don’t think it matters now, but it definitely mattered ego-wise going into high school ball. I knew I was the lone man out and that I was going to have to fight harder than everyone else to get my spot on the team. And that’s what I did. After that, we were all one team and it didn’t matter.”
Senior Luke Ledebur wasn’t surprised as the number of players in his class began to dwindle as the years went on.
“I kind of expected some people to leave,” Luke said. “Most of the guys didn’t have a passion. That’s the difference between middle school and high school basketball. In high school, you have to have a passion to really play.”
Now in their last season together, these six comprise the core of a team that’s won 24 games in the regular season. But the achievements of the class of 2019 are no surprise to head coach Kyle Herrema.
“We did feel like this group had a chance to be really successful,” Herrema said. “It is always exciting to think about where they were and where they are now. It’s been cool to see the growth they have made over the last six years.”
The game has played an integral role in the lives of many of the seniors.
“Basketball was my first love,” Vastano said. “It has taught me a lot, just about life and how to become a man and deal with hardships, frustrations, and the factors that come with that. I think basketball has been more than just a sport to me. It’s really shaped who I am.”
Yet, that relationship hasn’t always been an easy one. Injuries have plagued the seasons of multiple seniors, including Drew Doig, who had to forfeit his final season with an ACL injury.
“It was tough in the beginning, but I’ve come to terms with it,” Doig said. “Throughout the entire process, I’ve just had a ton of people there for me. Of course I want to play, but I can’t do anything about that now. I decided to stick around and help out anyway I could, especially for the younger players. I just tried to be positive and do the best that I could.”
Senior Kyle Olson missed much of his junior season with an ACL injury, suffered the previous summer. For Olson, the injury presented itself as more of an opportunity for self-reflection.
“I feel like injuries are kind of a personal thing,” Olson said. “People try to make it a team thing and say that you have to lean on your team for support, but really you have to rebuild for yourself. You have to do it on your own.”
Although they’ve been in the program together since middle school, bonds have taken longer to develop for some teammates.
“[Senior Jonathan Lawrence] and I didn’t really talk to each other until halfway through last year,” Olson said. “It took me about half a season to get him to start laughing at my jokes. Finally he laughed and I realized that he’s actually got a sense of humor. That’s when he started talking more and opening up. He’s like an onion. You have to peel back his layers.”
As their bond has strengthened over the years, the team has been able to translate this chemistry onto the court.
“Being friends off the floor helps us to be better teammates on the floor,” senior Trevor Hawley said. “Now that it’s senior year and we’re all on the same team, we’re finally able to come together more. We have fun outside of school and in the locker room. But, we have fun on the floor, too.”
For Luke Ledebur, he had the added opportunity of getting to play with a sibling. His older brother Braden was team captain when Luke made varsity his sophomore year.
“My brother and I are different players,” Luke said. “But I’ve always looked up to him. Growing up, I remember always watching him play. I admired his game, but [I also admired] his leadership skills. It was a cool experience being able to listen to how he leads, so that I could do the same when it was my turn.”
As the Leopards enter the postseason, the program’s history isn’t exactly on their side. In the last six years, the program has lost in the first round of the playoffs on three separate occasions and failed to even make an appearance two years in a row. Now, here they are, a second seed looking to get past the bi-district round for the first time since the program’s 2013-2014 season, the same season this year’s seniors first took the court as seventh graders.
“We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done at Lovejoy for a long time, so we’re all really excited,” Vastano said. “But we’re not worried about anything in the past. [Assistant coach Seth] Vansell always says ‘live in the moment’ and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The Leopards will open the postseason with a matchup tonight versus Frisco High, a team they have already beaten twice this season.
“I think this team has shown that it’s capable of beating just about anybody in the state,” Herrema said. “We’ve had some very impressive wins and had some times where we haven’t taken care of business against teams that we should’ve beat. But I think if we’re focused and come ready to play and knock down our shots, we’re capable of beating just about anybody.”
Eventually, all good things must come to an end. Exactly when it ends is to be determined, but Lawrence doesn’t want that to be any time soon.
“I don’t want to lose,” Lawrence said. “That’s what is motivating me. I don’t want to end it early in the postseason when we know we could’ve gone farther. You don’t want it to be your last game when it shouldn’t have been.”