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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Raider resiliency against P.K. Yonge's talented team

For the third straight year, the Crescent City Junior-Senior High School boys basketball team was heading to the state tournament. However, unlike the previous two years when the Raiders outlasted Father Lopez of Daytona Beach in district championship matchups, this time, the Raiders were going to be heading out on the road.

In the District 6-3A championship game on Saturday, February 11, 2006, the Raiders lost to the tournament host Union County High Tigers, 58-50, as the Tigers used a balanced attack to beat top-seeded Crescent City. Brendan Odom and a guy better known for his football prowess – C.J. Spiller – both had 16 points in the championship. The Raiders had beaten the Tigers three times during the regular season, but in the fourth and most important matchup, they simply didn't get it done.

Still, in Florida, district tournament winners and championship losers advance on to the state tournament with the district champs opening up at home and the district runners-up having to travel on the road to the corresponding district champion. In this case, that meant the Raiders would lock up with the No. 2 team in the state in Class 3A, District 5 champion P.K. Yonge of Gainesville.

Personally, I knew the Raiders were going to give the Blue Wave fits, even if P.K. Yonge had three quality ballplayers who were All-State worthy – all-everything guard Willie Powers and shooting guard Myk Brown, along with tougher-than-nails center Adio Mutima. The Blue Wave were coming off a 60-47 district championship win over Williston and were 23-4 going in.

That 23-4 record made Crescent City's 14-11 mark look weak, like coach Al Carter's Raiders had no right to be on the same court as the Wave. On paper, this should have been a no-contest.

But the Raiders had some scrappy kids on their team. They had point guard Danny Jones. They had another scrapper in Adarius Baker. They had an up-and-coming star in sophomore Toshmon Stevens.

And they had The Man at the swing forward-guard position in 6-foot-5 Dexter Clark, a smooth customer who wasn't afraid to take the ball to the hole or take the outside shot. In many ways, he could find his way to the foul line. He was, without much doubt, Putnam County's best ball player, so if he had a good game, that meant the other guys were involved in the action and they would give these Wave players everything they can handle.

I left for Gainesville from my apartment at about 4:45 p.m. on this Thursday afternoon, February 16, 2006, and made pretty good time, stopping at the nearby Mexican restaurant, On The Border, which sadly no longer exists in that spot. Had a great meal and at about 6:40, I headed back the other way for a five-minute trip to P.K. Yonge, a school nestled in a corner right across from the University of Florida and on the same side of the road behind many of the UF dormitories that sat there.

Gainesville was a pretty happenin' place in the winter of 2005-06 and just trying to get to the school was a bit of a challenge, but I did get there. It was about 6:50 p.m., just 10 minutes before tip-off. I went to make sure I had everything in my car. Then I searched for my press pass.

Nothing. Check again in my glove compartment or in the container case in between the front seats, even underneath both seats. Checked in my wallet. I think I checked everything four times. Couldn't find it. All I had was a piece of paper with my name on it to prove it was me, but it didn't have my picture on it or the name of the newspaper.

At that moment, it was my only hope. I got into the small foyer between the front door and the gymnasium. I explained that I could not find my press pass and this was my pass and I would confirm that to anyone there with one phone call to my boss if need be.

These people, though, wanted proof. Simple, pure proof. I had none other than my driver's license, but that didn't have anything to do with what I did for a living. This was a bad place to be at 6:55 p.m. and it was about to get worse. I had no physical money on me and it would have cost $6 to get in. By 2006, I was doing everything via check card. If I had to run out to a Wachovia bank, I would have taken 15 minutes to get to the bank and back. No branch was anywhere near me.

It was really a bad situation. All I kept saying was that I could prove to them who I was, and they wouldn't let me in. It got so bad that some overzealous officer thought it was a wonderful idea to just physically push me out the door.

Over a fucking high school basketball game! Can you believe this?

Well, now I'm standing outside and without money or proof of who I was and what I did for a living. Legitimate proof that is. But one person saw what was going on and intervened.

He was Crescent City Junior-Senior High's principal, Joe Warren. Now, he and I had conversations over the 2 1/2 years I was at the paper and he was principal. Warren and head coach Carter were high school classmates at now defunct Hastings High and it was Warren who got Carter the job as the school's boys basketball coach in 1998.

Mr. Warren certainly had an interest in this game and having it covered. The man pulled out his wallet and paid the $6 for me to get in. I was embarrassed because all of a sudden I had no press pass to get me in for free, but I was willing to take the opportunity to allow him to let me in and thank him for it.

So by the time I sat down, I had already lost nearly two minutes of this game. The Raiders were already down 6-1. And it was about to get worse: a 3-point field goal by Powers was followed by a layup from Brown and then another 3-pointer, this time by Powers.

P.K. Yonge 14, Crescent City 1. Carter called his second timeout.

How ugly was this going to get? Did I just waste Joe Warren's money? That's about how I felt at the time. We were only 2:49 into the game and the Blue Wave were already threatening to make this into an epic route.

But coming out of the timeout, the Raiders showed life. Clark was fouled and hit one free throw, then Baker delivered a layup for a basket. That was followed by a Clark free throw, a three-point play by Clark and a steal and basket by Jones.

Now it was 14-10, a much better game to watch. And in the final minute of the first quarter, layups by Chavarrious Hill and Dwight Milton knotted the game at 14-all as the buzzer sounded. The Raiders had hit five of their last eight shots in the period and their defense stymied the Blue Wave into seven straight misses to wipe away the 13-point deficit.

The enthusiasm from the Raider bench because of the rally had coach Carter and assistants Clarence "Pooh Bear" Williams and Quentin Lewis excited. They knew they could attack the Blue Wave defense and found out they were a really good offensive team, but a not-so-great defensive team.

And they continued to attack. A free throw by Jones was followed up by two free throws by Hill, giving the Raiders an improbable 17-14 lead. Finally, though, after going a second short of six minutes without point, Mutima hit a short jumper to cut the lead to one. Hill answered with a jumper to make it a three-point game.

The teams swapped free throws to make it 20-17 with 5:21 left in the first half.

Then something I didn't even expect happened – the Raiders had another gear they could go into all of a sudden. Clark hit a layup, then two possessions later, Baker was fouled and hit two free throws. And baskets by Clark and Milton suddenly made it 28-17 with 1:43 to go before halftime.

Yes, the visitors were leading by 11 points! This was after starting the game down 14-1.  Yes, against the No. 2 team in the state in that classification, Crescent City just went on an improbable 27-3 run!

The Blue Wave couldn't find the ocean if they were standing on the edge of the dock. That's how awful they were in their shot selection. Here they were, a team with three All-State caliber players looking absolutely clueless! From the basket delivered by Mutima with 6:46 to go before the half until now, the Blue Wave had missed 14 straight shots – 14! For whatever reason, P.K. Yonge looked like a team that shouldn't have been on the same court with the Raiders.

And then the Blue Wave missed their 15th straight shot as a 3-point attempt by Jason Palmquist missed the mark and Jones came down with the rebound.

But the Raiders got careless. Powers stole the ball from Clark and had clear sailing to the basket for an easy layup. The Raiders missed their next three shots, including a block by Powers off a shot by Milton. And with two seconds to go before the half, Sterling Jewell (that's really his name, I couldn't make it up if I tried) delivered a 3-pointer to cut the Raiders' lead to 28-22 at the break.

Now I've always been a firm believer that you never want to give the other team that's down a little bit of momentum because that could take them a long, long way the rest of the game. And yes, I was worried for the Raiders. They had done everything that was asked of them by their head coach and had a six-point lead to show for it.

But games are really won and lost in the locker room during the halftime break. The team that's down makes adjustments. The team winning does everything it can to stay the course and not fall victim to complacency.

And it seemed in the Raiders' first possession of the third quarter, they were still the better team as Jones drove past Powers and got his shot up before Powers could make a play, banking the layup home to make it 30-22.

However, the Blue Wave defense was about to make things miserable on Jones and his teammates by switching to an all-out, full-court defense. The Raiders couldn't handle it. And after a couple of missed shots, the Blue Wave found the mark as Powers hit another trey to make it 30-25. A steal led to a missed trey by Travis Johnson, but Arnett Hall rebounded the shot and was fouled by Stevens. He calmly sank the free throws to make it a three-point game.

Another turnover by the Raiders was followed by a steal by Clark, who made his way free of Wave defenders down the other end of the court and slam-dunked two points hard enough to let P.K. Yonge's players and coaches know that the Raiders were not going away like a shadow in the night.

But once again, another answer as Brown connected on a 3-pointer to make it 32-30. Palmquist would hit a jumper on the next P.K. Yonge possession and the game was tied at 32-all.

Such a back-and-forth game filled with emotions on both sides.

The Raiders took the lead back on a basket by Baker at 34-32 with 3:49 left in the quarter, but again, it was Brown connecting from long distance. The Blue Wave led it 35-34, wiping out the Raiders' 11-point lead in the second period.

Baker hit another basket to put the Raiders back on top with 2:37 left in the quarter, but 14 seconds later, Mutima put back in a missed shot by Jewell and the Blue Wave led one more time.

Then the crusher. Off a Clark missed shot, the Wave set up for Powers, who was sitting about 28 feet from the basket. He got his shot up well behind the arc ... swish! Today even in my notes from that game, I put the three letters "N.B.A." next to them to designate how long a shot it was.

And when Brown found the mark with his third 3-pointer of the quarter, Carter needed another timeout down 43-36 with 1:28 left to go in the period. The teams would trade points before Powers got a step on Jones and beat Crescent City's tall players for a basket with seven seconds left before the buzzer, giving the Blue Wave a seemingly comfortable 48-40 lead going into the final quarter.

This should now be a runaway. That was my thought. The Blue Wave fans were pumped. They seemed to have done everything right in the pivotal third quarter, coming up with nine Raider turnovers and going 9-for-16 from the field and 5-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc.

All was going well, especially within the first minute of the final quarter when Powers came up with his third steal and handed off to Brown for the easy layup, giving the Wave a 50-40 lead. And while the Raiders were having a hard time with their possessions, turning it over for the 21st time in the game, Powers missed a shot, but Johnson was there for the putback to give the Wave a commanding 52-40 lead.

Two free throws by Jones off a steal was countered, though, by a layup by Brown. But with six minutes to go, Jones delivered a 3-pointer to make it 54-45. For some reason, that sparked the Raiders again.

A steal by Jones led to a feed at the other end for Stevens, whose 6-5 frame put every ounce into an emphatic slam dunk to make it 54-47. After a missed shot by Brown, Hill rebounded, fed Jones and Jones delivered a scissors-cutting layup to make it a five-point game.

P.K. Yonge called timeout with 4:57 left in the game. By now, they figured out how resilient these Raiders were. Even in a packed P.K. Yonge gym filled with excited Blue Wave fans, they couldn't believe what was happening. But they still had the lead.

However, a miss layup inside by Mutima gave Clark the rebound and Raiders fed the hot hand – Danny Jones. The point guard took the ball to the hoop and was fouled by Powers, his only foul of the game. Jones sank both free throws to cut the lead to 54-51.

The Wave finally answered on a short jumper by Mutima to make it 56-51. The Raiders didn't back down, though and when Jones hit a short-range jumper, it was a three-point game again with 3:01 to go.

But Powers was fouled by Stevens and hit two free throws. Missed shots by Jones and Clark eventually led to a layup by Mutima.

P.K. Yonge once again had this one under control, 60-53.

What complicated matters in this was that Carter had no trust in his bench and played a six-man set for the entire game – starters Clark, Jones, Hill, Stevens and Baker and reserve Milton. They hung in there as long as they did as the Wave shuffled players in and out the entire night, including a short stint by Chip Polite, who just a year before played his high school ball at Interlachen High, one of the schools in our coverage area.

Maybe they finally got tired. The looks on the players' faces with 1:41 left and down seven points were not good. But after Carter had used his next-to-last timeout, he implored his guys to dig down deep one more time. They had gone on spurts most of the night and he felt they had one more in them.

But there was a looming factor as well and it was one that lingered in my mind the year before: When the Raiders fell behind at home against Providence of Jacksonville late in the fourth of the previous year's first-round state tournament opener, Providence played a frustrating game of keep-away, never allowing the Raiders to see the ball unless they fouled them ... and Providence players were hitting their free throws without much hassle to cap a 52-39 win.

Somehow, it felt like the writing was on the wall. Even if the Raiders were to hit a shot on this possession, the Blue Wave were going to do the keep-away thing. They were 9-for-13 from the charity stripe at this point. Not a whole lot of positivity going into that last 101 seconds.

So the Raiders get the ball and work it around until they get it to Clark. He got fouled by Mutima. He hit the first of two free throws, but missed the second with Mutima pulling down the board with 1:29 left.

Here we go ... the human wheel is in motion and the keep-away game begins. Except it didn't! For some vapor-lock reason, P.K. Yonge coach Mark Griseck continued to run his offense inexplicably! Powers took a 3-point try. Missed badly.

Clark got the rebound and with Jones pushing it down the floor, he got the ball back to Clark, who calmly sank a jump shot.

P.K. Yonge 60, Crescent City 56.

Back the Wave went and once again, they took a shot they never should have taken. Powers took a short jumper that missed and lo and behold, Hill got the rebound. Jones got free with a pass from Clark and buried a jumper, his 12th and 13th points of the quarter.

P.K. Yonge 60, Crescent City 58. Only 39 seconds left to go.

And on the next possession, it was Jones stepping in front of a pass in the backcourt and delivering the ball to Clark. Clark took the ball to the basket and got fouled with 30.5 seconds to play.

Hey, P.K. Yonge players and coaches ... say this isn't so! How can you continue to play your offense with a lead late knowing the moment the Raiders get their hands on the ball, they're going to score!

The improbable was literally taking place in front of my eyes – eyes that weren't supposed to be seeing this if not for Crescent City principal Joe Warren.

Clark calmly went to the free-throw line and delivered both attempts, his 15th and 16th points of the game, to tie it up at 60-all.

This wasn't supposed to happen, yet it was! Now the Blue Wave had a reason to really run their offense after pissing away a seven-point lead in a matter of 71 seconds. The Wave worked the ball around the perimeter until it found the hands of Powers. Powers was being tightly covered by Jones. The two had been going at it all night long.

Powers began to make his move inside the 3-point arc, pulled back and took a jumper from about 18 feet.


Carter called his last timeout with 16 seconds to go and the Wave back up 62-60. He set up a play that would go to either of his two hot hands – Jones or Clark. They were capable of tying this game again.

Out of the timeout, Jones got the ball inbounds and handed off to Clark at the top of key. Clark had Brown on him, even though Brown was saddled with four fouls, one more away from fouling out.

Clark, who had to step out of this game after being hit in the top of the eye off a defensive play, making it bleed, put the ball on the floor with less than 10 seconds to go and began his drive to the hoop. He stopped just to his left of the hoop and took a shot that banked off the backboard and hit the front of the rim.

Unfortunately, the magic was gone as the ball bounced away from the hoop and Mutima had his 10th rebound of the game. He got the ball quickly to Powers, who was finally fouled by Baker with 2.7 seconds to go. It was still a one-and-one free-throw opportunity, but without a timeout, it would feel like a desperation heave for the Raiders.

Powers, who finished with a game-high 26 points, three steals and two blocks, missed the free throw. But sensing how tired the Raiders players were, Mutima stepped in to grab the rebound and put the ball back into the hoop with two-tenths of a second to go, his ninth and 10th points of the game to go along with his 11 rebounds.

There was nothing to do. The Raiders inbounded the ball and couldn't do anything else.

P.K. Yonge, who also got 21 points from Brown, had been outplayed for most of this game, but yet, great teams find a way to win in the end. And this team did, 64-60, to advance to the next round of the state tournament.

The dejection was visible on the faces of the Raiders players, who had poured everything they had into this one, but it still wasn't enough. Jones ended up with 18 points and eight rebounds in his final game, while Clark ended his career with 16 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Their positive-minded coach came out and he and I talked afterward. He said he was walking out of that gym with his head held high. And why not? They had a great game and put it all out there.

He would say to me later, "No one gave us a chance to win this game. Everyone who was there watching it knows we should've won it. But no one gave us any kind of chance to win. And we came so close to winning it, too."

The sad thing was that this was Crescent City's sixth trip to the state tournament under the affable Carter – and it was the Raiders' sixth loss. I called Carter in a column Putnam County's version of Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was best known for rolling a rock up the hill, only to have it come back the other way.

In 2004, Crescent City led Providence by 10 points with just under four minutes to go in a state playoff game, only to watch Providence go on a 12-1 run the rest of the way to pull out a 43-42 victory.

I was starting to wonder if Carter and his Raiders could finally roll that rock up the hill to the top without incident.

P.K. Yonge went on from that scare to hammer Wildwood, 76-51, but would lose in the Region 2-3A final to Jones High of Orlando, 61-57, most likely because Jones High was a better all-around team and unlike Crescent City, Jones had the tools to put P.K. Yonge away.

A year later, Crescent City lost the District 6-3A title game again, this time to county rival Interlachen, 57-47. And that meant another road trip to open the state tournament for the Raiders – and a trip to Gainesville to face the Blue Wave. This time, though, P.K. Yonge made sure there'd be no doubt as to who the better team was – it was 54-16 at halftime and the Blue Wave went on to crush the Raiders, 75-28.

That would be the last time the Raiders made the state tournament for seven years. Then on February 18, 2014, the Raiders and Carter finally broke through in the state tournament after winning the District 8-1A title, beating Williston at home, 52-48, in the Region 4-1A semifinals. That led to playing for the Region 4-1A championship three days later. But when big man Datwan Lewis picked up a costly fourth foul in the third quarter and his team leading 29-22 in Chiefland's small and noisy gym, the host team responded by going on a 20-4 run the rest of the way and to a 42-33 win that gave them a state 1A Final Four berth.

It wasn't Crescent City's time then. But 2015 sure was there time. The Raiders won another District 8-1A title, beat Newberry in the first-round region opener, then beat back Williston, 67-53, at home to secure the program's first-ever state Final Four berth. They lost to Hawthorne, 57-40, at the Lakeland Center, in the 1A state semifinal round.

Still, Carter was no long Sisyphus – that rock got pushed up the hill until winning a region title.

And looking back on how much blood, sweat and tears went into getting there, it's a true testament to the program that it never once quit, even in lean years.

As much as I remember the great wins in the mid-2010 decade, my mind always goes back to that night in Gainesville when the Raiders pushed back against the No. 2 team in the state and darn-near beat them.

It also goes back to how lucky I was that I had an ally on my side to see that game.

That $6 is still waiting to be handed back to Joe Warren. Hopefully, very, very soon.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

From near extinction to district champions

Some high school sports teams are never destined for success. Why? Because you need a whole bunch of things to happen for a team to turn from a floor mat to show stopper.

One of those things is coaching. Good coaches can make teams better. Great coaches can make their teams believe they can win championships.

That seemed to be the thing that was lacking with the Crescent City Junior-Senior High School girls basketball team in the first few years I was a writer at the Palatka Daily News. In the first three years I was there, the program had gone through three coaches and had combined for a record of 20-29. Now how are you supposed to get better when your coaches don't stick around? A conundrum to say the least. And though the 20 wins looked nice on the outside, a lot of those victories were coming against schools that had even less in talent than the Raiders had.

Still, this was a team that was building up to something good in the 2006-07 season. There were three seniors who had gutted it out for those three years in Raider uniforms – senior forward-center Kayla Strickland, guard-forward Donshitessa Banks and the leader of that group, guard LaToya Scott, whose brother, Walter Curry, was a standout football player at Crescent City, then again in college at Albany State in Georgia, where he was a Division II All-American and spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where I got to do a story on him in 2010 in his effort to try to make the team (he didn't and unfortunately that was his last opportunity to latch on to an NFL team).

This team had talent. They also had some nice players on the younger level. One of those players was a "project" in 5-foot-11 seventh-grade center Kayshia Brady. She may have been 5-11 in real life, but with a large arm span, she could play like a girl about 6-foot-7. But she was raw ... very raw. And 13-year-olds need constructive guidance to believe they can go to that next level.

She was about to be part of the varsity team because Crescent City housed both middle schoolers and high schoolers, allowing middle schoolers to play with the high schoolers, a decision that had been made a decade before when seventh- and eighth-graders were allowed to come to Crescent City.

The team was set for maybe a very good season. Nobody knew, really. But there was one missing factor.

A coach.

The previous coach made the decision to not return for the next year.  And no one was running to the athletic director's office to apply for the job. June became July. July became August. August became September. And before September could turn to October, a decision was needed to be made.

Will the program stay or will it go into extinction, at least for the year? To this day, I can not believe that the program would have gone away and the seniors who were devoted to the team in spite of losing records would have had nowhere to go in their senior years.

That's when the "savior" came along. All they had to do was find her in the gymnasium coaching the volleyball team.

But in this case, Holly Pickens knew the program. Well, maybe not up-to-the-second knowing it, but she had two stints as the Raiders' coach, winning a district championship in the 1984-85 season and getting the team to the state tournament two straight years, and then again in the 1990s, she coached the team for a few years.

More importantly, though, Coach P was about the school and not allowing a program to go under, especially one she had ties to. She took the job.

And right off the bat, things began to turn around with the team. The regular losing was over and the players grateful to play that season thanks to a positive influence on them and the program were responding. Before long, the Raiders were building a nice season under Pickens. They finished the district regular season with a mark of 9-1, the only loss coming to Keystone Heights and head coach Mike Ruszkowski, the former Palatka High girls coach and all-around super guy. The Indians were also 9-1 in district play.

It came down to a coin toss for who would get the first seed since all the other tiebreakers had been exausted. This was crucial. If the Raiders lost the coin toss, they would be the second seed in the upcoming District 6-3A tournament held at new school Palm Coast Matanzas High. That would relegate the Raiders to a likely semifinal matchup with a tough and frustrating, third-seeded Union County team from Lake Butler. A correct call of the coin would give the Raiders the top seed and have them face either the host and first-year Matanzas Pirates or regional rival Pierson Taylor High, neither team very good that season.

It is uncertain who made the call, but when the coin came down, it landed in Crescent City's favor.

Imagine that – from a doormat to the top seed in a district tournament and almost a certainty that the program would win the semifinal matchup and make the state tournament for the first time since 1986.

And Crescent City prevailed in its semifinal rather easily, handing Matanzas a 36-17 loss to improve to 12-4 on the season as Scott outscored the Pirates herself with 19 points and Brady had seven points, seven blocked shots and 14 rebounds.

This caused a bit of a problem, but I also knew that if my boss needed me to go somewhere, I'd gladly go, especially a championship. After all, I had tickets the next Saturday night in Tallahassee for my friend Arrii and I to see Jimmy Buffett in concert. I wasn't giving those up, so if one of our county boys basketball teams made the final, he covered for me – and would do so as Interlachen beat Crescent City for the District 6-3A championship at Crescent City.

He wanted to see Palatka's girls play for a district championship that Saturday night, February 3, 2007, at Clay High School against St. Augustine High. Told him I had no problem going to Matanzas High to see Crescent City face off with third seed Union County, which sprung the upset on Keystone Heights in the other semifinal, 39-31. (See! This is why that coin toss was extremely important!)

But I had two issues before going to the game on that Saturday night. The first issue was I was heading to Disney World the next day (which, oh by the way, was Super Bowl Sunday as the Colts faced off with the Bears that evening) with my friend Ginny, who I had to pick up at her home in Orange Park, drive across the Buckman Bridge on I-295 down to I-95 and then 75 miles to Daytona Beach to the Suburban Lodge Hotel we were staying in that night. By the time we got there in my Toyota Corolla and checked in, it was 6:25 p.m. and it was a quick goodbye back out the door and back up I-95 another 36 miles to Palm Coast to find a school I had never been to before.

All I knew was the exit I had to get off of (Exit 298) and it turns out in the end, I could have gotten off at the exit before that at Exit 289 and taken one road a few miles up until I hit the school. That most likely would have saved about 10 minutes on my trip. By the time I got off at the exit, I was on US-1 heading south this time. This north/south/north driving was making me insane.

By the time I found the school I was to go to, I had gone a good eight miles out of my way. But as the grey clouds thickened up on this late February evening, the only thing missing as I approached this school way in the distance standing beside itself was lightning and thunder, followed by that evil organ music that accompanies it. I felt like I was driving the Scooby-Doo mystery van.

Somehow I figured I got close to where the gymnasium was located and parked beside some other cars that were in the lot near me. I found the right door and by the time I walked in at 7:15 p.m., there was 5:13 left to play in the first quarter and Crescent City was already leading 6-2. Eventually, I would catch up to what I needed to collect, and I would be able to seek out someone at least on Crescent City's side who was doing stats for the game and pick up on rebounds, steals and blocked shots.

The gym looked as if it was just built a month or so earlier. I had not seen lights this bright in a gymnasium in a long, long time.

By the time I had caught up, the Raiders had built a 9-3 lead with 3:11 left in the first quarter. Turns out this would be the biggest lead of the night. As the game wore on and I had finally caught up on the early points of the game, the teams would swap the lead 11 times.

Yes, 11 times! I was preparing for what could be a long night and an overtime or two. The Raiders held an 18-14 lead at halftime, but the Tigers, who had two capable scorers in Amber Franzlubers and Miranda Kent, didn't back down. By the end of the third quarter, the Tigers had the lead 30-27, just eight minutes from the title.

The Raiders battled back and tied the game at 33-all with just under four minutes to go on a basket by Strickland, a big body in the middle who was enforcer down low.

On the next possession, the Tigers turned the ball over. This would be a trend for late in the game not just for the Tigers, but for the Raiders as well. It was a close game, but it was also a sloppy one, too.

So the Raiders bring the ball up the court and the ball finds Scott's hands. She saw her defender in front of her and thought she could dribble toward the base line and take a shot. To this day, I am pretty sure that she did not count her steps to where she needed to be correctly and with that defender still on top of her, she threw a shot up toward the basket.

And to this day, I still have no idea how that ball landed in the basket. Scott threw up what looked like nothing more than a prayer. The ball hit the upper right-hand corner of the backboard and for some reason, it had enough spin to come downward toward the basket. It fell through ... and for a 3-point field goal, no less.

Seriously! You couldn't take that shot in a horse game and hit it the way LaToya Scott put it up. To this very day, Holly Pickens still can't believe the ball found the hoop. Then again, maybe someone was smiling down on her for taking over this program.

Back the other way came the Tigers. They missed and Brady rebounded. Then the Raiders came down and missed and Franzlubbers would rebound. With under a minute to go, it was still 36-33 in Crescent City's favor. Now I'm sitting in the stands just not even believing that this impossible 3-point shot with 3:11 to go in the game was going to be it – no more scoring! Nothing! Someone had to do something, right?

With 33.2 seconds left, Banks was fouled. The Tigers were over the limit in fouls and so Banks had a one-and-one free-throw situation. Banks calmly nailed the first free throw to make it a four-point lead. But the second free throw missed, Franzlubbers went up for the rebound and got fouled by Brady.

Oh, boy, seventh-grade jitters! This team came so far and now, fouls were going to decide if they walked out of this gymnasium winners or not. One second had come off the clock, so with 31.9 seconds left, Franzlubbers sank both free throws to make it 37-35.

And the seventh-grader was about to make it worse. With 23.6 seconds left, Brady turned the ball over.

Nooooooooooooooooo! Suddenly, my hands found the back of my head in a folded manner in worry for the team I was covering. Union County called timeout and set up a play. It was going to Kent, a sharp-shooting guard. The ball got to Kent and she fired.

It was off the mark. The Raiders dodged a bullet when Strickland came up with the rebound. But as soon as she got a hold of the ball to secure it, so, too, did Union County's Ashley Clemmons. The official blew the whistle for the held-ball possession.

The arrow was pointing in Union County's favor with 11 seconds left to go.

When is this going to end!? That was probably what Pickens was feeling. The veteran coach had just turned 47 in November, but was feeling inside like she was 74. Union County called a timeout and came up with a play. It was designed to go again to Kent. She was their bread-and-butter standout from the outside.

From watching what would happen next, the play was designed for Kent to find an opening and take a shot. Apparently, Pickens knew what was going to happen.

So off the inbound pass, Kent received the ball. She saw spots she could dribble to, but as soon as she headed toward them, Raider defenders were coming out to meet her. There was no way they were allowing her to beat them. Kent had 16 points for the game and Franzlubbers, guarded well by Banks, had 15 points. The rest of the team – four points.

So with six seconds left, Kent passed the ball off to diminutive point guard Ashli Watson. Watson received the pass somewhere at the top of the key in no man's land for guards. But once she got the ball, she was determined to take it to the hole and tie the game.

She, though, had one obstacle in her way – Kayshia Brady. As Watson put her shot up, Brady stuck her left hand up at the same time.

Pickens couldn't look. She had seen her "project" commit numerous fouls that season and she pretty much thought it was going to happen again. But as the buzzer sounded, there was not another sound to accompany it.

No official's whistle. Suddenly, Crescent City players began running furiously back toward Pickens and their Raider teammates. The coach turned back and realized that her seventh-grade "project" had just blocked Watson's shot cleanly, sending the tying shot away.

Players jumped on each other, but in one of the greatest celebration moments I have ever witnessed in all my years, LaToya Scott went sprawling to the floor, back on the ground ... creating make-believe snow angels.

Crescent City 37, Union County 35. District 6-3A champions.

Even Hollywood producers would have a hard time believing this stuff really happened. Seriously! This is the make-believe world, but in this case, it was real. The team that wasn't supposed to be playing was now about to claim a trophy it had not won in 22 years in the sport. The seniors got to collect the trophy from Matanzas' athletic director and proudly paraded it toward to the Raiders' rooting section where they got to cheer the spoils the team just picked up.

Holly Pickens was somewhere between proud and tears. I couldn't tell which. I reminded her that this championship would not have existed had she not taken the job. She answered back, "If all it took was returning as basketball coach, I would've done it long ago. I can't even express in words how I feel. I am so proud of the way the girls played their tails off."

And they had to. Every last point was going to matter in this battle of attrition between two defensive-minded teams that got sloppy, but gave the fans there that Saturday night a classic.

"I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I'd be holding this (the trophy)," Scott said near tears.

Scott finished with a team-high 15 points. Strickland ended up with 10. And as for Kayshia Brady, she didn't have a bad game either – seven points, three blocks and 20 rebounds. Yes ... 20 rebounds. That night, a star was born on that Matanzas court and the 13-year-old would continue to dominate in the sport, earning our paper's girls basketball player of the year honor two times, volleyball player of the year in the county three times and female track athlete of the year three more times. Brady went on to a stellar four-year college volleyball career at Florida Southern University in Lakeland. To this day, she and the great Christie Pearce Rampone are the two best female athletes I ever got to cover in my 30-plus years in the business.

The run the Raiders had in their season came to a quick end in the next game when they lost their state tournament opener at home to Newberry, 42-37, in a game they should have won if not for the 46 missed shots and 34 turnovers they committed that night.

The season ended with the Raiders going 13-5, their most successful in a generation. Not bad for a program that was about to be shut down that year. Pickens would go on to coach the Raiders for two more years before giving it up to her assistant coach, Steve Cummings. The program has made the state tournament as a district runner-up over the years, but has not won a district championship since that night nine years ago.

As for myself, I couldn't wait to get back to Daytona Beach to the hotel to type in the story on my new laptop that I gotten the previous October. It was all still fresh in my mind and I didn't want it to go stale. Ginny had ordered Chinese food from a place nearby and with the hotel room equipped with a stove and a microwave, I had the leftovers from what she had ordered that night, which was great since I had not eaten for hours.

The next day, we headed out to Disney World, enjoyed the day at Epcot and I took her home that night. It would be the last time I spent a day at Disney World. We listened to the Super Bowl on the way back into Putnam County that evening and by about 7:30, I had gotten her home and I was heading back from Orange Park to my place, but spent the last part of the game eating at the Palatka Beef O'Brady's near where I lived.

And the memory of that basketball game still lingers to this day. Whenever I hear about a program packing up for a year in Putnam County, I always hope it's not true. Because somewhere, there's a coach who can step in and make something amazing happen for a group of boys or girls hungry to do great things.

It did happen one winter. It happened in the most dramatic of ways.