People do not usually enjoy being trapped in elevators, but you would not know that by looking at Durham Academy’s twelve varsity basketball players, who found themselves in that very predicament over their winter break trip.
Now it may not have been the brightest idea to pile the entire team into the elevator of the J.W. Marriot outside of Atlanta, Georgia, but each player was enjoying every second they got to spend with their teammates.
It’s a luxury that the Cavalier basketball teams get to travel to a holiday tournament every winter break, as the squads get a chance to prove themselves against out of state opponents, while bonding with their teammates. These trips form memories that stick with players for a long time.
This year’s holiday tournament was an epic opportunity for the men’s varsity team, as they competed in the Westminster Holiday Classic, going up against many larger Georgia schools in an eight team, single elimination bracket. The big city atmosphere provided a lot of fun activities for the team to enjoy, but there was one clear goal, bring a championship trophy back to Durham.
DA returns eight players from last year’s TISAC championship run and was especially motivated to win a Holiday tournament after last season’s crushing defeat in Myrtle Beach’s Panther Classic. Last winter, the Cavaliers led Conway High School (SC) by 10 in the final minutes of the championship game, but choked down the stretch. Conway guard Juwan Moody hit a runner across his body as the buzzer sounded to stun DA. This year was bound to be different and the team was ready to pounce.
Team trips can be crucial to team chemistry. During a season, teammates do not spend much time with each other outside of practice and school, so the time spent together in Atlanta helped the Cavaliers grow into a unit instead of twelve individuals. Guard Jack McCallie recognized how team bonding helped make the trip a great experience.
“The team’s chemistry on and off the floor is a blast to be a part of,” he said. “I couldn’t ask to be with better teammates to finish my basketball career.”
The team’s focus on basketball did not mean that they could not have fun though, as head coach Tim McKenna and assistant Andy Pogach planned some exciting events for the players.
On the 27th, the team attended an Atlanta Hawks game at Phillips Arena where Former Duke legend Grant Hill, now part owner of the Hawks, hooked the group up with his personal box, complete with all-you-can-eat food. Freshman Cole Sinclair attempted to sneak an extra plate of chicken wings back to the hotel, but was denied by the coaching staff.
The rest of the non-basketball related activities included a trip to the College Football Hall of Fame, where the players proved they should stick to hooping by putting up an embarrassing show of missed field goals in the museum’s “Skill Zone”. The team also ventured through Centennial Olympic Park to the World of Coca-Cola, which has a tasting room containing every Coke product in the world. The players also tried their hand at TopGolf.
On the court, the Cavaliers were dialed in, as they opened the tournament with a convincing 56-43 win over Riverwood High School (GA). DA used a balanced scoring attack to ride to a first round victory.
The second round proved to be much more of a challenge, where DA’s second round opponent was Woodward Academy (GA). Woodward star Walker Kessler looked to be a serious mismatch before the game even started. A 6’10 sophomore forward, Kessler is ranked in the top 30 of his class by both Rivals and 247. The big man has already made visits to Kentucky and Georgia, and his ability to stretch the floor with his jump shot and inside presence makes him very tough to guard.
This did not phase the Cavaliers one bit. Using a 2-3 zone, DA packed defenders into the paint and did not allow Kessler to get the ball without a fight. Kessler was held to only 7 shots for 12 points, and the Cavs rode an impressive defensive effort to a 53-36 win and a spot in the championship game.
The following night DA returned to face the Pope Greyhounds (GA) in what promised to be a grueling battle. The two teams were similar in size and like the Cavaliers, Pope was coming off of a championship game loss of their own from last year’s Westminster Classic. DA looked ready to bring a championship back to Kirby Gym.
The Cavalier’s enthusiasm was short-lived, as the Greyhound gradually built a convincing lead. DA came out of the gates unfocused and sluggish, and their once stellar defense repeatedly let up easy baskets. Their usually consistent 3-point shooting fell to an abysmal 4-29.
Letting goals slip through your grasp is not an easy pill to swallow, but the Cavaliers recognize that their season will not be judged by another winter championship loss. DA still has conference championship and state playoff berth ambitions and the team recognizes that this experience will lead to more success in the future. The coaches know the team needs to look forward.
“These team bonding experiences will help us to become a better team as we head into 2018 and pursue our goal of winning back to back TISAC championships,” reflected Coach McKenna.
The holiday trip was great fun, but as star guard Bryant Randleman put it, “being able to bond and just chill with dudes who I actually like outside of basketball made it even better.” McCallie described the trip as “something he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”
The Cavaliers now begin their trek through conference play, and unlike their hotel elevator, look for the season to move up from here.