About 30 minutes after the game had gone final, Cary Christian boys basketball coach Bill Thompson finally exited the locker room and walked toward midcourt. From the seats in front of him came a voice: “Thank you coach!”
Warm applause and cheers followed.
So too, did the tears. And the hugs. And the handshakes.
Seemingly every Cary Christian supporter who made the Friday night trip to see the Knights fall 73-60 at Westchester Country Day, about 50 in all, got a chance to thank a misty-eyed Thompson one-on-one as he walked the stands from one person to the next.
This was more than the end of the season, a first-round loss by a 9-seed on the road at an 8-seed in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs.
It was the end of chapter in nine seniors’ lives. All of them have been going to CCS for at least seven years – since the sixth grade.
“Just about three-quarters of us have been playing together since kindergarten, out there at recess,” said Caleb Ellis, one of the seniors. “We’ve known each other for about 12 years. Some of us played AAU together third through fifth grade.”
After watching the Cary Christian faithful’s outpouring of support for Thompson, Westchester coach David Carrier – a previous conference foe of Cary Christian’s when he led Kerr-Vance Academy – also came up to do the same.
He knew what this was like. A few years earlier, he had coached his son’s final game at Kerr-Vance.
“You’ll never forget this year and this time. This is what it’s all about. This is why I get to coach,” Carrier said. “I respect you and the guys so much and always have.”
On Friday, Westchester Country Day’s outside shooting was enough to put away the Knights. Cary Christian trailed 30-20 at halftime and never cut it closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Cary Christian’s outside shots didn’t go down and the Wildcats’ did. The Knights were only 13-of-22 from the free throw line.
Cary Christian’s Ellis tied Westchester’s L.J. McCoy with a game-high 19 points. Nick Smith and Jason Thompson – coach Thompson’s son – scored 11 each and Devin Dukes had 10.
“We played well in the second half, they were just a little better than us,” coach Thompson said.
Cary Christian’s seniors ended their careers as back-to-back conference champs, having not lost a game in two different leagues.
“It was hard to live up to last year. The expectations were really high with nine seniors. But we did the same thing,” Thompson said. “It was a very emotional locker room. ... We might not be the best athletes, but we play together, we love each other and we play hard. And that’s why we’re pretty good.”
Ellis said Thompson’s final words to his team were to use the lessons learned in basketball for the rest of their lives.
“A lot of teams we play are real good. They’ll have guys come in for a year and then leave and don’t really know each other. But win or lose, we still love each other, we’ve still got a better relationship. That’s something special you don’t get a lot,” Ellis said.