By Will Johnson
SAN ANTONIO – As I look back at this past weekend, I think about how lucky I was to be able to cover a group of young men as they made a run at immortality in a small town. While they came up short in their quest for a state championship in Class 2A basketball, it was a helluva journey and I feel fortunate enough to have just been along for the ride.The Grapeland Sandies opened up the 2016-2017 season by going 6-0 with close wins
over Mabank, Waco La Vega, Teague and Fairfield.
With their 6-0 mark on the line and a chance to win the Fairfield Basketball Tournament, the Sandies laid an egg and got hammered by
the Argyle Eagles by a final score of 54-29. Just so you know, Argyle made it to the Class 4A State Semifinals before falling to eventual 4A Champs Silsbee by a score of 46-45.
The Sandies rebounded after their loss to Argyle and rattled off 10 straight victories. Then, Grapeland seemed to hit the proverbial fork in
the road. They lost four of their next six as the district season loomed ah
No one doubted the Sandies would make the playoffs, but with the Big Sandy Wildcats now in the Sandies’ district, a ninth straight district championship seemed in doubt. The Wildcats had embarrassed the Sandies by 32 points in the 2015-2016 Regional Semifinals and while a significant portion of the team had graduated, they still had enough juice to make some noise, according to the pollsters.
It turns out the pollsters were wrong and all doubts were erased after a 15 point win over Big
Sandy on their home court.
At about this point, I started looking at possible bracket matchups and how difficult the road to San Antonio might be. I also started looking at the polls to see who might be overrated and spotted several.
The Sandies cruised through district and I really started to believe they had a legit shot at taking a stroll along the River Walk the second week in March.
The Sandies hammered Cross Roads in Bi-District and whooped Rosebud-Lott in Area. That brought them to the Regional Quarterfinals where they faced the LaPoynor Flyers. Basketball pundits everywhere said this would be the Sandies’ swan song.
Eleven young men wearing the maroon and white of Grapeland thought differently and w
hile it was a tough game, the Sandies emerged victorious by a final score of 62-54.
The win over La Poynor sent the Sandies to the Regional Tournament but it came with a price. Shooting guard Rodney Davis was excused from the team for personal reasons while point guard Parker Wilson was benched for the first quarter for disciplinary matters.
It didn’t make a difference as Grapeland came out and opened that proverbial can in the first quarter against the Shelbyville Dragons in the Regional Semifinals. While Shelbyville managed to make a late
ird quarter run, it seemed to take all their energy as the Sandies pulled away to win by 18, 86-68.
Surely this was as far as the Sandies would go. They didn’t have the height, they didn’t have the bulk and there was certainly no way Grapeland could match up with the #4 TABC ranked Tenaha Tigers.
Once again the pollsters were proven wrong as Grapeland overcame the odds to beat Tenaha by a score of 99-83 and punch their ticket to San Antonio.
By late Saturday afternoon on March 4, the question on everyone’s mind was who plays who?
Originally, the UIL listed matchups of Grapeland / Clarendon and Muenster / Thorndale. Then, as if by magic, they changed things up and had Grapeland / Muenster leading off the Friday morning basketball at the Alamodome.
I wasn’t 100 percent sure that the Sandies were going to make it to San Antonio, but I had a good feeling. As a result, I had pre-booked a hotel
room on the River Walk for Thursday and Friday. Still, the pessimist in me didn’t want to be stuck with a hotel bill if I wasn’t going to go, so I agreed to a little higher rate for a free cancellation.
Ok. Got the room. Now, to get the media credentials. The UIL doesn’t allow just anyone to go sit on the floor at their championship sporting events. You need to have a vested interest in the school you are there to watch and you need to proof!
I had to submit two articles, a pint of blood and a promise not to sell anything I photographed while at the game. Easy enough, but you had to wait until noon on Sunday before you could do any of this.
Once it was submitted, all I could do was wait. I couldn’t call on Tink to knock down a three to help get me to the Alamodome. I was completely at the mercy of the UIL. They could have said no and I would have had no recourse, fortunately, I got a yes and off I went.
When I arrived in San Antonio on Thursday night, it was about 10:30 p.m. With the game at 8:30 a.m. the next day, I went to the hotel, unpacked, turned the air down low, threw an extra blanket on the bed and crashed.
For the first time in a long time, when the alarm went off and the wake-up call came, I jumped out of bed and began to get ready for the game. Had a nice breakfast downstairs, went back upstairs to finish getting ready and left for the house that Timmy and Dave built.
I arrived at the gate at 7:30 to pick up my pass and everything was smooth as silk. The UIL officials were as nice as they could be and showed us where to go in a general sort of “… go down there to that grey column and take a right” way.
Eventually we made it to the floor and when I say we made it to the floor, I mean exactly that. Photographers sit on the floor. No chair, no nothing. When you’re a young man, sitting cross legged on the floor for two hours ain’t nothing but a thing. But when you’re pushing 40 like I am, the knees and hips start to ache a little more. Ok, ok 50, or so – anyway you get the picture.
The game started and Riley Chipman opened up like a man possessed. He was everywhere. Threes, steals, twos, rebounds – and helped Grapeland open up a 17-11 first quarter lead.
Muenster cut the lead to one but Grapeland pushed back to lead by eight at one point and by five at the break. Muenster cut the lead to three by the time the fourth period started but the Sandies were not going to go away.
Muenster took its first lea
d of the game early in the fourth and went up by five. Tyrin Wiley made a jumper to cut the lead to three and then after a steal by Kamari Smith, Parker Wilson made a layup and was fouled. Wilson hit the free throw to tie the game at 47 with 1:36 left to play.
What followed next, still stings. After Muenster made a free throw to go up 48-47, Chipm
an made a layup to give Grapeland the lead at 49-48.
terrible call at the eight second mark put Muenster on the line and sure enough they tied the game up.
I didn’t see the call when it happened. But I’ve watched the replay time and again and it was a charge.
We all know the rest of the story. Muenster outscored Grapeland in OT to win the game and then went on to demolish Clarendon in the finals.
After the game, I was looking through the pictures I took. I caught Kamari with a smile and I caught Rick Frauenberger in a grimace as he went up for a shot. There was Coach Cannon Earp talking to his team in the last two seconds. Then, there were the tears and a picture of Coach Earp consoling a devastated Tink McQuirter.
Later that night, I went down to the river and sat quietly on the bank. At first, I was rather melancholy but then I started to realize, yeah it sucks to lose but to even get to where the Sandies got this year was amazing.
Perhaps Wilson and McQuirter summed it up best in the post-game press conference.
McQuirter – “If we had another game, it would be close. If we fixed some of the things that we messed up, I think it would still be close but we would come out on top by at least five.”
Wilson – “I would take this team over that team (Muenster) any day. We fell short but we wound up where we wanted to be. A lot of people doubted us, even before this game. We proved we could hang with the number one team in the state.”
Thanks guys! SPND!
Will Johnson may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.