What a ride that was.
When the boys basketball season at Perry began my private expectations were for the team to finish perhaps 16-5 overall, then make a run that, in my mind, was more likely than not to end at the state tournament.
As it turned out, Perry struggled to finish 12-9 in the regular season. Looking back, there were at least four games, perhaps as many as six, that the Bluejays — had they played then like they played on their post season quest — would most certainly have won. I am sure the players and coaches themselves agree.
But it was what it was, and maybe it required a series of frustrating losses to turn the team into the machine they became down the stretch. Whatever the cause, it was thrilling to see the evolution, and to be able to follow the Jays as they earned their one-year denied trip to “The Well.”
From a sportswriter’s point of view, there was plenty of fun along the way.
Dunks, for instance. I had been waiting years to see a Bluejay team police pain over the rim, and this season brought a thrilling series of flushes, “out of my way, punk” slam dunks, tomahawk chops, “u-momma” throw downs and two-handed “in your face disgrace” jams.
There was the fun of seeing how far senior guard Shammond Ivory was going to place between where he would finish and the old PHS career scoring mark of 1,306 set by Mark Einck in 1978.
Shammond shattered the standard, raising the new mark to 1,708. Yes, there were no 3-point shots in the 70’s, but turning Ivory’s 119 career treys into deuces would still leave Shammond with 1589 points — 283 clear of the old record. Point(s) made.
Perry fell by five points at Bondurant-Farrar Feb. 9, but it was at the very next practice, several players told me, that a sudden resolution set in. Enough was apparently enough.
Boone was the first to feel the wrath of an angry flock of Jays, as Perry avenged their worst loss of the regular season with a satisfying 88-59 beat down. A comfortable win over Saydel set the stage for a magical playoff run.
The Perry girls had faced a torrent of classless abuse in a post season loss at Boone on Feb. 20, with the Perry boys taunted by racially-motivated chants from some in the DC-G student section in the district opener in Adel two days later.
The players heard what was being said, but used it as extra motivation to avenge a maddening 73-70 overtime loss to DC-G in the substate finals last year and an equally frustrating five-point loss in Grimes in December. One player told me the opportunity to beat the Mustangs for the first time in his prep career and to avenge those losses “was burning in me all season.”
Perry won, 57-50, then crushed Boone, 75-57, Feb. 25 to return to the substate finals.
The Feb. 29 showdown with No. 6 Glenwood in Atlantic will live in the hearts and minds of the Perry players and coaches for the rest of their lives, and it should.
Rarely in 27 years have I seen a basketball team dive and flop like the Rams, and it has been equally rare to witness the level of pouting I observed from courtside (the Urbandale baseball team of 2002 still easily wins my all-time crybaby award), all of which detracted from an otherwise fine team.
A big 3-pointer from Ryan Rathje. Dominance on the offensive glass from Janier Puente. A sudden burst of points from Kyle Nevitt. The team overcoming the loss to fouls of Shammond, who had played brilliantly. Steady play from the bench. Great defense from Rashon Ivory. Another big trey from Rathje. The smartest foul of the season on a heads-up play from Alex Long.
And then, joy. In its purest form. The thrill of exorcising a demon, of reaching a goal and of doing so against long odds and in nerve-fraying fashion.
Anyone who saw assistant coach Jim Richmond on the court after the game understood it meant as much to the coaches as to the players, as a personal 31-year drought had finally ended.
Then came the state quarterfinals and a very good Pella team, a squad that would go on to finish third in 3A.
Perry was thumped. Crushed. Humbled.
It happens sometimes. Not every story ends with the dragon dead and the princess rescued.
However, the loss should not detract from the greatness of the story the Bluejays wrote for themselves. The oldest player was still 10 years from being born when the Perry boys last played in the state tournament back in 1988.
The thrill the team brought to their school and community was palpable and a joy to experience. In grocery stores, at banks, in beauty shops, while getting gas, grabbing a bite to eat, after church — everywhere you went, for one glorious week, the Bluejay basketball team was all anyone wanted to talk about. Tuesday’s pep rally and roadside salute as the team left town were, in a word, special.
Nothing can take that away. Years from now people will talk about “the ’16 team” and what they achieved. No way can take away the banner, the medals, the memories, the newest plaque in the trophy case.
The example the team and the Perry students set, especially after the unfortunate events to which they were exposed, spoke volumes about the “Bluejay way.”
Having head coach Ned Menke deservedly win the Character Counts Coach of the Year award — decided well before the events that drew so much attention — was a fitting attachment to a great season.
And that season ended at the state tournament. Yes, the stay at state was shorter than anyone wanted. Considering how much everyone wanted the 2014-2015 season to end at state, you have to ask: How can this possibly be considered a disappointment?
The Perry pep band was the only 3A band of the eight quarterfinalists to play at the tourney Tuesday. They sounded great. But at the end of the game, as the Perry team was walking off the court with their heads down, it was a note the band did not play that resonated the most.
Asked by students to play the school fight song, the band could not, as state officials had told director Brandon Weeks no post game music was allowed.
Instead, they joined their fellow students in a rousing singing of the school song. All in the arena heard it. I know this, because many of my fellow sportswriters did, state officials and fans from Pella told me how awesome it was that our students had the class to serenade the team, even in a loss.
The season started in hope. It staggered along until a sudden rebirth. And it ended in a fashion, both off and on the court, that brought great credit to our school and community.
That, in my book, is victory.