Derricka Lewis noticed the oddity of the moment Monday night inside the auditorium at Sanderson High’s winter athletic banquet. She sat in the middle of the audience surrounded by her teammates on the girls’ basketball team.
The event was a chance for athletes, coaches and parents to reflect on the season – only the girls’ basketball season wasn’t over. And that made Lewis proud.
Lewis knows fans and even her classroom peers didn’t expect the Spartans to reach the NCHSAA 4A Eastern Regional semifinals. Yet the No. 11-seed Spartans (the highest remaining) will play top-seeded conference rival Millbrook tonight in Fayetteville’s Crown Arena.
When the Spartans were introduced at the banquet, the team received the loudest ovation.
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“To hear that crowd … it picks my head up,” Lewis said. “It’s great to get this far because a lot of people didn’t have faith.”
Up on stage were Raymond Hammond, Michelle Conti and Glenn Frazier, all assistant coaches on the team. Lewis, a senior guard, also noted who wasn’t on stage: head coach Marcus Davis.
Davis, the only coach many of the players had ever played for at the school, left the team in January and hasn’t taught at the school since Feb. 12. According to Greg Decker, the principal, Davis has taken a voluntary leave of absence for personal reasons. Davis, who is still being paid by Sanderson, declined to comment for this story.
“We know coach Davis would want us to get this far because he’s a part of us,” Lewis said. “We are doing this for him and for ourselves.”
What’s remarkable, and hard for Lewis to explain, is how Sanderson has excelled without its leader of three years. Her team’s story is one of young people finding a way to accept and adapt to change.
Hard news to hear
Sanderson’s season started Nov. 22. The worst day of the season was Jan. 13, a 56-49 loss to Broughton at home.
The Spartans three days earlier suffered a two-point loss to Enloe on the road, the kind of game that can cause a team to lose confidence. Then in practice the day before facing Broughton, Davis told his team he needed to go home to “take care of something.”
In pregame warm-ups, the Spartans noticed Davis wasn’t in the gym. With no pregame speech from Davis, Hammond had to tell Spartans the news.
“I’m sorry ladies,” Hammond told the players, “but coach can’t be with us tonight.”
Dashawna Smith, a senior guard, remembers all of her teammates putting their heads down, just minutes before tipoff.
“It was horrible to hear that,” Smith said. “I wanted to cry.”
Learning to adjust
Hammond knows no one likes change, especially teenagers. But Sanderson had to deal with plenty of it.
First for the Spartans was listening to Hammond, who has a calmer demeanor than Davis. Then Conti (JV girls’ coach) and Frazier (JV boys) joined the team on full-time basis in February.
“We all bring different things,” Hammond said of Conti and Frazier. “It’s gratifying to me that these kids didn’t quit after they had a reason to.”
Hammond said he’s not the new head coach. Instead, he said the trio has formed a coaching committee to make decisions.
So far it’s worked. After Sanderson’s loss to Broughton, the Spartans were 10-5. Since then, Sanderson has won seven of its past eight games – the only loss coming to Millbrook.
“The girls have wholeheartedly followed what they have been asked to do,” Frazier said.
Decker agrees. In Sanderson’s 56-53 road win over Southern Durham on Friday, Decker watched the Spartans erase an eight-point deficit.
“These girls have really played well,” said Decker, who feels Davis gave the Spartans quality lessons before he left. “It’s a testimonial to what Marcus had been able to teach those kids over time about character.”
Good things happen
Derricka Lewis cried in the locker room after the victory over Southern Durham, mostly because she couldn’t believe how far the team has come.
“We’ve listened to our (new) coaches,” Lewis said, “and good things have happened.”
The Spartans will have to do the same tonight to beat Millbrook – for the survival of their season and to continue their wild ride.
“We had to realize the way we play as a team determines how good we are,” said Dashawna Smith.
Millbrook (28-2) went to the state title game last year. Sanderson (20-8) has lost to Millbrook three times this season.
So, why does Sanderson think this time will be different?
“Our girls don’t want their season to end,” Frazier said. “When you have that kind of drive, funny things happen.”
NCHSAA 4A Eastern Regional semifinal