The Making Of A Champion!

On April 7th, 2017 I attended the 40th reunion of my high school graduation class. My alma mater, Metairie Park Country Day, is a special place. It is a learning environment  like no other I have ever seen, and the knowledge and mentoring I received while I was there impacted my life, and continues to do so to this day. Last month the Country Day Cajuns won their sixth Louisiana state championship in boys basketball. This was of significance to me because I played and started on our first ever state title team.

I listened to the most recent title game on my computer and after victory was assured I began to reflect. My thoughts however did not dwell on the team I had played on that won the historic first title. Instead they focused on the team I had played on the year before, the one that made it to the finals for the first time in school history and lost. I felt an inner sadness that a team that had done so much would have it’s accomplishments go unnoticed. As a society we focus on those that win, not those that come close. I felt my teammates from that team deserved better so I wrote a blog post about them and specifically focused on the seniors who never got to experience the satisfaction and euphoria that winning a championship brings.

Now I’m not a naive person. I blog for enjoyment and realize that my readers will be few if any. I never anticipated that anyone would read my post on the CD basketball team of 1976. When I showed up at my reunion discussing my blog was the last thing I thought I would be doing. It turns out I was wrong.

Our attendance was light in comparison to past reunions but a few of my teammates were there. To a man all had read my most recent blog post. The first person to greet me at the reunion was Tim Bright and right after saying hello he said ” I read your blog and it’s great writing but you and I need to have a sidebar conversation about that. I have a few things I’d like to share with you.” What I soon discovered is that while they all appreciated the sentiment and the intent behind my efforts it was made very clear to me that the 1977 team had a story worth telling as well. A few years ago I wrote a piece about our game with Newman, a school which at that time had a similar academic profile and storied basketball tradition. We lost that game and my blog post was an effort to exorcise the disappointment I felt about the outcome. Joey Agular,one of my teammates at the reunion said, and I am paraphrasing, “You wrote about us losing to Newman, and you wrote about a team that lost in the state championship game. How about writing something about us winning?”

As I was listening to the various comments about my blog post I came to understand what I believed was their perspective. I started all but two games in 1976. John Derenbecker was the other junior starter and Chris McMorris started one game in place of me that season. It was only natural that for my classmates 1977 was paramount. I was a role player in 1975 either coming off the bench first or second that year. While I knew I was part of that team I didn’t feel as connected or prominent in our wins and losses as I did when I became a starter. When you are on the first team there is more implied responsibility. Now maybe others feel differently, so perhaps my take on this is flawed, but for me being on the floor at the start of the game was what I had worked for. In 1977 eight out of the twelve players on that team were seniors and seven of them started at least one game that year or were first off the bench.

Those words resonated with me. We did have a story. A great story. So I’m going to attempt to tell it now. First some disclaimers. Much of what I will be writing will be from memory and my perspective. I can’t guarantee that everything I write will be remembered by my teammates the same way. It will also be my longest blog, because to encapsulate an entire season in a few paragraphs would be impossible. So if you are still reading this consider yourself forewarned.

Of course the real story of the 1977 state championship team is the coach, players, and support staff. Before we begin this journey you need to meet them.

THE COACH

Richard Jarrett: Coach Jarrett was our head coach and only coach. We had no assistant coaches and no other people authorized to give us instruction. Coach Jarrett coached both the junior varsity and varsity teams. A teacher at Country Day, Peter Michell, had played college basketball at Georgetown and also had coached at a local high school called Sam Barthe. He wanted to be a part of our program. I saw him in the gym once showing someone a proper technique for shooting free throws. Apparently he forgot to clear that with Coach Jarrett. I never saw him at one of our practices after that. I don’t know what happened but I can connect the dots on that pretty easy.

Coach Jarrett was a marine. He was from Decatur, Illinois, attended college at Moorhead State in Minnesota, and later earned a masters from the University of Oklahoma. Praise from Coach Jarrett came sparingly and blistering verbal attacks were not uncommon if you made a mistake once too often or worse did not give your best effort. He believed in man to man defense and precision on offense. While our practice jerseys were adorned with the words Run Cajun Run we actually only ran off of turnovers we created on defense. Under those circumstances we would attack the basket if we had favorable numbers, but for the most part our offense was controlled and based on perfect execution. I use the word execution because there were times at practice and in games where I felt my own execution was imminent because of mistakes made, perceived or real. Coach Jarrett was also the Athletic Director of the school so there was the perception that basketball was the marquee sport at CD. His temper was legendary but his coaching acumen was high.

THE PLAYERS

John Derenbecker: Country Day has produced many outstanding basketball players over the past few decades but John was the first elite player in the program. He became a full time starter in 1975 as a sophomore. In his first game he scored an astounding 31 points against Ecole Classique at the Jesuit High School gymnasium. In 1976 John was a first team All District selection, player of the year in the district, and also was named first team All State. He was nothing short of magnificent in the 1976 title game, scoring 37 points in a losing effort. His offensive array was unparalleled. He could score from outside or in close to the basket. He had the best jump shot on the team along with an indefensible hook shot. John grew an inch between his junior and senior year to 6’8″. Unstoppable on offense, and imposing on defense with his size and wing span, he was our best player and our team captain. One interesting note was the size of his hands. They were so big he could catch a basketball with one of them.

Merrill (M.C.) Wautlet: I was the other returning starter. I had made second team All District in 1976. My role on the 1977 team was simple. My job was to get any rebounds John might miss, score when he was double teamed, and play hard defense. Over the summer I grew a half inch to 6′ 2 1/2″ and also added about ten more pounds to my frame. I very seldom took long jump shots. My domain was the painted key and if I strayed too far from there it wouldn’t be long before I was heading to the bench. I also decided to dedicate that season to the memory of my late father, who used to sign all his correspondence with his first two initials. That, and my desire to be a shut down defender like E.C. Coleman of the New Orleans Jazz, gave me the idea to be listed as M.C. Wautlet on our roster that year.

Chris McMorris: Chris was the team’s point guard. He was a gifted ball handler and passer and could score too. At 6′ even he was tall for a guard but was thick as well. He could absorb punishment on the way to the basket and finish plays. A former biddy all star McMorris was charismatic, cocky and confident. He was also the quarterback on the football team. In 1976 he was the team’s sixth man and he had the ability to be a human high light reel at times. Chris was more accustomed to a free wheeling style of basketball that is very much a part of today’s game but he restrained himself to ensure that the offense was run the way our coach wanted it. When McMorris had the ball you had to be extremely alert as he could rocket a pass to you from almost any angle. He could also beat almost anybody off the dribble. Chris was an elite point guard in a metro are that sported more than a few stars at that position, notably Newman’s Sean Tuohy , Barry Barocco at Rummel, De La Salle’s Darryl Moreau , Crystal Chris Jennings at Jesuit, and Keith Richard just up the road at Redemptorist of Baton Rouge.

Billy Shepherd: Billy was the only junior to start regularly on the 1977 team and he may have been the best pure athlete out of all the starters. Billy was an excellent shooter and ball handler. At 6’2″ he could shoot over smaller players and was quick enough to go around bigger players. He was lithe but strong. Shepherd was an extraordinary water skier as well. While not a strong rebounder he did give us more height on the front line than any previous Country Day team and his ball handling effectively gave us a third guard on the floor.

Tim Bright: Tim was 6 feet tall and also thick in the body. He was an extraordinary outside shooter and was deceptively quick. He could attack the basket, run the point if needed, and was adept at finding open men on the floor with passes. Tim was unique in that he often played his best when the stakes were highest and was capable of making big plays when they were needed the most. He would prove that later in the season on the biggest stage we ever played on.

Joey Agular: Yet another 6 foot guard Joey was an important addition to the 1977 team. Agular was akin to a swiss army knife in that he could do a lot of things very well. He could shoot, dribble, and rebound. He was an excellent leaper which allowed him to play inside if needed. He was also a tenacious defender, a skill set that would come into play at a critical time later that season.

Trip Ludwig: Trip was six foot six inches tall. A late bloomer his minutes climbed as the season wore on. A former swimmer he was spidery, with long arms and legs, but also deceptively strong. He was able to match up well with John in practice. He was a great rebounder and very solid offensively around the basket. When he and John were in the game at the same time it was virtually impossible for our opponent to get a clean shot inside.

Howell Crosby: Howell was a very competent guard. He had a good jump shot and was a capable ball handler. He was also very adept at taking charges. A charge occurs when you beat an opposing player to a spot on the floor, set your body, and basically let them run over you. I can tell you first hand there is nothing pleasant about that experience. It is however a great momentum changer. Be assured that a lot of us got sick of running over Howell in practice. In addition to basketball Howell also played football and ran track. When he graduated he held the school record in the mile.

Mark Haynes: At 5’9″ Mark was one of our smallest players but there may not have been a quicker guard with a basketball on our team. An explosive dribbler Mark was also a player who could get to the basket and create plays. He was our comic relief and a tremendous teammate. He could have started on a lot of other teams but he never complained about his lack of playing time. This patience would be rewarded later in the season when he made a shot that would go into the record books.

Charlie Steck: Charlie was a 5’10” guard with an outstanding jump shot. He was one of four juniors on that team and was buried on the depth chart. Charlie, like many players who have to wait for their opportunity, made us better by pushing the starters in practice.

Gene Newton: Gene was basketball player who played the game like a football player. He was a guard with a good shot and was also a decent ball handler. In that football was his primary sport he brought that intensity to the practice floor. He was physical and tough. He came by this naturally. His father was an All State quarterback at Byrd High School in Shreveport who later played football for Tulane.

Scott Miler: When recording history one of the obligations is to be as accurate as possible. Scott was a junior and our last man off the bench. There was nothing compelling about his game. At six feet tall he wasn’t talented enough to play guard very well and he wasn’t big enough to go inside. His jump shot was serviceable.He was also very quiet. What he did do was give his best at every practice and also when he got the opportunity to play. Scott did what he could with the gifts he had. Not everyone can say that.

THE MANAGERS

Charlie Van Horn, Howard Schloss, and Bruno Charest were our managers with Charlie being the head of the group. They lived and endured every moment of that season with us. All the things you take for granted were handled by these guys. Water on the bench, supplies, our shot of Pepsi at half time, making sure the bus was loaded and unloaded. They were the first in the gym and the last to leave. Always encouraging and loyal to the program and us.

THE STATISTICIANS

Robert Pratt was our scorer and a close friend to many on the team. Bibba Bullington and Katie Andry kept our statistics. Coach Jarrett used analytics in part to evaluate performance including a program called Offensive Efficiency Rating or O.E.R. for short. After every game we received a chart that had all the pertinent stats both collectively and individually. Points scored, shots attempted, free throws, etc., along with all the accompanying percentages. We also had our O.E.R stats, which reflected possessions and points scored from each of them. O.E.R. was a program used across the country and at the end of the year we ranked fifth nationally in that category.

PRACTICE BEGINS

In 1977 the Louisiana High School Athletic Association used several classifications to separate member schools by enrollment to ensure a level playing field. Those classifications were AAAA, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Class B and C schools did not play football so if you offered football you were automatically placed in Class A or above.This was compelling because by enrollment Country Day would have been in Class B but played in Class A because we did offer football. At smaller schools, because of limited enrollments,many athletes played multiple sports.

Because basketball had a strong culture at Country Day there were quite a few players who chose not to play football. This was a source of frustration for the football coaches. Basketball players tended to be bigger and faster than typical athletes and were blessed with good eye hand coordination. There was pressure on them to play not only from the football coaches but also from our football playing peers.

When preseason practice began we had a fair amount of players on hand. John Derenbecker, myself, Joey Agular, Billy Shepherd, Trip Ludwig, Charlie Steck, and Scott Miler were all players who focused on basketball. We also had junior varsity players who did not play football practicing with us. Missing from that group were Chris McMorris, Tim Bright, Howell Crosby, Mark Haynes, and Gene Newton. Basically we had half of our varsity team playing football but most importantly some of our best guards and ball handlers were on the gridiron as opposed to the hardwood.

Derenbecker had played quarterback on the junior varsity his freshman year but after that season he hung up his cleats. It was obvious very early that John had the ability to play major college basketball and that was the sport that required his focus. Billy Shepherd also played one year of JV before deciding to go basketball only. I on the other hand was probably more suited to football. I was aggressive, big, had a temper, and I could run and catch. I had injured my left shoulder playing tackle football without pads at Audubon Park a few years earlier and was prone to stingers, which was part of my reason for not playing. If my arm jerked a certain way or got jolted hard I would get a horrible tingling sensation  that would make the limb virtually useless for a few minutes. None the less at the start of my junior year, after prodding from my friends and the football coaches, I decided that I was going to play.

When Coach Jarrett got that news he stopped me by the front of the gym and told me if I played football I would not start in basketball that year. Now I had split time as the sixth man with Vance Reynoir the year before and had worked very hard in the off season to secure the open spot created with Kevin Piper’s graduation. In addition Vance had hurt his knee again so I felt like the spot was mine. I protested, citing Jimmy Kock and Robert Montgomery as examples of players who participated and started in both sports. Jarrett looked at me and said they were both better athletes than me and my only hope of starting was to focus entirely on basketball.

With no disrespect to Robert or Jimmy I felt that was a load of crap. The truth be told football was my favorite sport but I wanted to compete with the best athletes and in my mind in the mid to late seventies the best athletes in the New Orleans metro area were basketball players. I had played football and basketball at De La Salle as an 8th grader and after seeing Pierre Gaudin, Joe Comeaux, Jordy Hultberg , Lee Blankenstein , and Gary Lorio play I knew basketball was where I wanted to compete. I had also played against Newman’s David Pointer and Sean Tuohy while at DLS. These players were known not just Uptown where I lived , but across the city. I didn’t start playing basketball until the 6th grade. I went from being a bench warmer on my 8th grade team at DLS to being on the cusp of starting for my high school team as an 11th grader. So I swallowed my pride and went immediately to tell the football coaches that “I” had changed my mind about playing football.

That meeting with Head Coach Greg Carlson and Assistant Coach Jim King went poorly. Carlson pressed me to give Jarrett up but I knew better than to do that. King became furious and  began insulting me. He would harbor a grudge for a long time about that and in pick up basketball games where he was involved I would get an elbow to my face as a reminder of that from time to time. Being a little ornery I would respond by getting up quickly and guard him even harder. Eventually we became friendly again. More importantly to me I got my starting spot on the basketball team my junior year.

I mention all of the above because the year before Tim Bright did not play football. His going out for the team was a surprise and I imagine was not taken very well by Coach Jarrett. I’m don’t know if they ever discussed it but if they did knowing both of them I’m sure it was entertaining. Had Tim not played football the only potential basketball starter playing football would have been Chris.

In the mean time we began practicing. Our early schedule was tough. We were going to open the season on the road playing Archbishop Shaw and then travel to Newman before hosting St. Martin’s at home. Newman and St. Martin’s were huge rivals and Newman was favored to win the state championship in their classification, which was AA. Shaw , an AAAA school, would be our first ever opponent from the Catholic League. All of this would have been exciting save for one thing. Our football team was favored to make the playoffs and if they did we would have to start our season without many of our key players.

The football team’s performance was something we had no control over so we got to work. Coach Jarrett had set up a scrimmage for us at Tulane Gymnasium but would not tell us our opponent. Being teenagers we all assumed we would be scrimmaging the actual Tulane basketball team. As outrageous as that was we were full of bravado. We had animated discussions about slowing down Phil Hicks and Pierre Gaudin. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to be Arthur Bibb’s worse nightmare. When we eventually found out we would be scrimmaging De La Salle I must admit we were all a bit disappointed.

De La Salle was the AAAA state runner up the year before but their team had been decimated by graduation. Jordy Hultberg was now playing at LSU, Lee Blankenstein was playing for Georgia Tech, and Gary Lorio had made Tulane’s roster. They also had a new coach. Milton “Mook” Clavier who had replaced Duane Reboul, who was now coaching in college.

The DLS team was still very familiar to me. Their guards now were Jimmy Anderson and Johnny Schwartz, guys I had grown up with. They also had Armstead Boniface. Boniface was only 6’1″ but played like like he was 6’7″. They would be missing Bruce Senter at the scrimmage, their 6’5′ center who had transferred to DLS from Ben Franklin.

If not having our full roster was problem enough we were also implementing a new offense. In prior years we relied on the 1-4 offense against man to man defenses while employing the Swing against zones. The 1-4 used a series of on and off the ball screens to free up players for lay ups or short jump shots. The swing attacked zone defenses from the side, usually setting up jump shots from the corner or passes inside to one of two post players stationed on the low blocks near the basket. All zone defenses become 2-1-2 when you attack from the side so their was some genius to the simplicity of that offense. Likewise isolating two players using screens against a man to man defense was effective too. If the defender overplayed in anticipation of the pass you just went back door to the basket. You also spread the defenders out in a straight line, thus limiting their ability to help out.

This year however Coach Jarrett decided to install an offense called the Passing Game. It could be used against both a zone and a man to man and it basically was a read and react offense. The key was following a series of rules. The set was two men up top from the foul line extended, two men below in the short corners, and one man in the post. Dribbling was allowed only if a clear lane to the basket opened up. You always screened away from the ball and you always had to maintain the 2-1-2 configuration. You were allowed to replace the post and you had to pass the ball at least once to the post if three or more passes had occurred.

Now all of this sounds simple except that offense required a high level of cohesion. It was not unusual to see two players both try and screen for the same man, for the set itself to become imbalanced, and to forget to replace or pass into the post. In the scrimmage against De La Salle all of these issues surfaced.

We had a hard time getting the ball up the floor. Without McMorris, Bright, Haynes , or Crosby the point duties fell to Joey and Charlie, both of whom were shooting guards. As such we all had to help get the ball across the floor when DLS applied pressure as my boyhood pals Anderson and Schwartz were athletic and quick. John was John, scoring and rebounding and wreaking havoc. I struggled ay first. I had played inside for so long that being on the perimeter felt odd, even though I played there all the time in pick up games. Boniface added to my shame by erasing two of my shots in very dramatic fashion. Eventually I found my footing and played better. Shepherd looked good but we were  lackluster overall. Who won was probably a toss up as no score was kept but I know John pretty much had his way on offense and we did defend well. Like most CD teams because of the emphasis on defense that part of our game was far more polished. As time progressed, and the season opener drew nearer, we began to master the passing game and develop some chemistry with the players we had. Our front court was set and our back court was good but the reality was without all our players our first two games, especially against a Newman team with four returning starters and no football players, would be uphill battles.

FATE INTERVENES

Greg Carlson had built Country Day into a very good football team by the fall of 1976. Carlson had played football and ran track at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Like Jarrett he received his masters at the University of Oklahoma. Assistant coach Jim King played football at Kansas Wesleyan University and was so accomplished as a lineman that he received a free agent tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals. A knee injury throwing the discus ended his pursuit of a pro football career.

Chris McMorris at quarterback gave the Cajuns both a running and passing threat. McMorris, a district champion in the javelin, had a very strong arm and was very elusive in the open field. The team had talented wideouts in Mark Haynes and Tim Bright and an explosive running back with Erik Houtz. A broken arm in the middle of the year ended Houtz’s season but soccer all star Michael Dunn proved to be a more than adequate replacement at tailback.  Howell Crosby played fullback and proved he could do damage as well, gaining over 169 yards rushing on 19 carries, all in the first half, against Lutheran High in the fourth game of the season.The defense was anchored by linebacker Tommy Staub and defensive linemen Robert Pratt and Billy Sherar. It was arguably the most talented team top to bottom to suit up for Carlson since he was at Country Day. The offense could spread the field with its passing to compliment a strong ground attack. The team was equally strong on both sides of the ball and also played outstanding on special teams. Of course with a top flight soccer program to draw talent from this group of Cajuns had the luxury of two place kickers on it’s roster.

Country Day had defeated arch rival St. Martin’s for the first time in years and had prevailed in a spirited game against a talented First Assembly team, coming back from two touchdowns behind  late in the 4th quarter to win 24-20. The seventh game on the schedule featured a battle of undefeated teams. Unfortunately the Cajuns fell to a very good St. Charles Catholic squad. The Comets at that time were located in Destrehan and drew players from all over the talent rich river parishes of St. John, St. Charles, and St. James. One of those players was All State running back Hernandez Robottom, and on that day the CD defense had no answer for him. To compound matters the offense had no luck against the St. Charles defense, which resulted in a 17-0 final score.

Despite that loss The Cajuns still appeared to be a lock to finish second in the district and go to the playoffs. Only three games remained on the schedule. Unless New Orleans Academy, Ridgewood, or Crescent City Baptist pulled an upset CD would be in the post season.

The Cajuns faced an inspired NOA team but shut them out 14-0. Next up was Ridgewood. CD had manhandled Ridgewood the past two years. While the Golden Eagles were improved it was highly unlikely they would beat us. Those of us that only played  basketball were emotionally compromised. We didn’t want to face Shaw and Newman at less than full strength, but there was no way we would root against our own school to lose in football. Selfishly however if we did lose it was not something I would mourn for long.

The Ridgewood game was played at Metairie Playground, just a few short blocks from our campus. The Golden Eagles showed up in shiny new uniforms and were very animated on the sidelines. On our first possession McMorris hit Bright on a long pass for a touchdown. Even though the extra point was missed, a highly unusual event given the quality of our kickers, it appeared the rout was on. Ridgewood had other ideas. They dug in and the game remained scoreless until well into the fourth quarter.

Behind left handed Quarterback David Pavlovich the blue clad Ridgewood eleven put together a do or die drive that resulted in a touchdown. After making the point after the Cajuns found themselves trailing 7-6 with very little time remaining. Unlike the First Assembly game there would be no comeback win. Ridgewood was now in the driver’s seat for the second play off spot. All they needed to do was beat a less than stellar Kehoe Shamrock team to earn their way in.

As expected Ridgewood beat Kehoe the following week. The Cajuns took out their collective frustration on Crescent City, annihilating the Pioneers 58-0 to finish the season at 8-2. As heart breaking as the end to the football season was it did have a silver lining. Our basketball team would get all our players in time for the season opener against Shaw. The bad news is that they had a week to get ready.

THE SEASON BEGINS

The sadness our teammates who played football felt about the end to their season was soon replaced with excitement over the beginning of our basketball campaign. While Shaw was first on our schedule the honest truth is that we were all looking ahead to playing Newman.This was not lost on our coach and he drove us hard in practice all week.

Shaw was on the verge of becoming a football powerhouse in the Catholic League behind All State quarterback John Fourcade but in basketball they were a lower tier program. None the less we were happy to play them. No other school in the Catholic League would schedule us and who could blame them? They had nothing to gain by beating us and everything to lose if we won. Shaw head coach Ronnie Aucoin, the former coach at St. John Prep, was probably the only reason Shaw agreed to play us, in that he had a relationship with our coach and knew we would be a good test for his team.

Shaw had a couple of big men, including one at about 6’5″. Their star was a cat quick guard named Dave Winchester. We went with a starting line up of Derenbecker, Shepherd, Agular, myself, and McMorris. With the exception of Chris the rest of us had the benefit of many weeks of practice. Chris was our primary point guard so he did not have the luxury of gradually working his way into the line up.

We controlled the game and Jarrett went to his bench liberally, making sure everyone got some time on the floor. Mark Haynes electrified the crowd with a twisting drive to the basket in which he converted and picked up a foul. As he laid writhing on the floor in my exuberance I ran to him, grabbed him by both wrists, and literally jerked him to his feet. Derenbecker, ever vigilant, admonished me, as Mark may well have been injured in his fall. Fortunately he was fine.

I was pleased with my performance. I guarded their big man much of the game and held him in check , and we did well even when John was allowed a breather. I went six for six from the floor. We won 75-66 but even though we were never really challenged it was not a performance to write home about. Newman was sitting on a 7-0 record, had played all AAAA classification teams that were better than Shaw, and had won all of their games by double digits.

The lead up to the Newman game was nothing short of high drama. Scheduling them had been difficult and by making us play them early in the season at their gym Newman’s head coach Billy Fitzgerald had ensured we would meet the Greenies at our most vulnerable point, as they had no football players and we had several. The year before Newman was favored to win the state title but they were upset early in the playoffs. We on the other hand had come out of nowhere to finish second in the state in our classification. The hype was intense and the tiny hell hole known as Death Valley, where Newman played their games, was jammed to capacity when game night arrived.

In April of 2011 I wrote a blog post entitled Some Things You Never Get Over. In that blog I recapped the entire game against Newman. As such I’m not going to rehash it here again. Frankly I don’t have the stomach for it. In summary we jumped out to a 15 point lead, we led by nine points at the half, and still led by nine at the end of the third quarter. In the most gut wrenching way possible we ended up losing by five. The final score was 67-62. If you want to read about the game in its entirety you can find the article in my archives on this web site.

Coming off the devastating loss to Newman we now had to host St. Martins. We knew we had a much better team than them and it was also our home opener. Our football players were now in basketball shape and were picking up the nuances of our passing game offense. We had no trouble dispatching the Saints, winning easily 75-43. At lunch the day of the game John guaranteed a dunk. This was the first season dunking was allowed so everyone in attendance was on edge waiting for history to be made. In pure Derenbecker fashion he waited until late in the game to drive baseline and throw one down. The crowd exploded!

Our next stop was to travel across Lake Pontchartrain to compete in the Mandeville Tournament. In my earlier blog celebrating the accomplishments of the 1976 team I noted that a hurdle they had to overcome was winning a first round play off game. There was however another blight on our record. From my time at CD beginning in 1974 no Cajun team had ever won a tournament of any kind. The year before we lost twice in the Pearl River Tournament and the finals of the state tournament.

We got off to a good start. We beat Salmen, an AAA school, 70-58. The year before Salmen beat us by twenty-nine, our worst loss that season, but there was no 6’8″ Byron Williams to contend with this time as he was now playing college basketball at Xavier in New Orleans. They did have a skinny kid with stringy blond hair scoring a lot. His name was Alan Risher and he was a sophomore. Before he ended his high school career he would be all state in multiple sports and go on to play quarterback at LSU.

We then faced St. Martins again and won although it was an uninspired effort. Instead of winning by thirty two points this time the margin was only sixteen. After that it was Covington High, and we rebounded back to win that game 70-49.

Next up was the host Mandeville Skippers for the championship. The year before we had lost to Mandeville in the Pearl River Tournament 63-62. To a man we thought we would beat them and take home the trophy. It was not to be as Mandeville prevailed 69-65. Like Newman it was a game we could have , and in this case, should have won. It was a quiet bus ride back to Metairie. Our record now was 5-2.

We righted the ship with a victory at home against John Martyn 74-56. We then dispatched Belle Chasse 85-75 before heading back across the lake again for a rematch  with Salmen in the Pearl River Tournament. Salmen turned the tables on us, winning 68-59. This was a twenty one point turnaround from our victory over them earlier in the year, and would end up being our worst loss of the season. Ironically, in that same tournament the year before, Salmen handed us our largest loss of that season. In the consolation game we beat host Pearl River 72-35 as Billy Shepherd had a break out performance with twenty two points. Our record now was 8-3. The 1976 team only lost six games all year and one of those was in the state finals. They had only lost four games going into district play and two of those losses were by one and two points respectively. It could be argued that the 1977 team had a harder schedule but as far as we were concerned our record was nothing to be proud of.

We now were slated to play in the L.B. Landry Tournament. Landry had defeated De La Salle the year before in the AAAA state championship game but like DLS their roster had turned over. All City guard Andre King had graduated and 6’7″ James Ray was playing collegiately at Jacksonville. These Buccaneers were not slouches however. They had speed and size including a shot blocking phenom in the middle. We lost 54-49, our lowest point output of the year. Afterwards both teams met in a classroom to have punch and cookies. The coaches of both Country Day and Landry  felt it would be a good thing to have kids from the Fischer Housing Projects visit with their peers who lived on Audubon Place, Exposition Blvd, and the oak lined streets of Metairie Club Gardens.

Our next game was against Leon Godchaux High, also known as Reserve. We won 63-57 but it was a game I watched mainly from the bench. During a jump ball I failed to tip the ball to our designated catcher, which would allow him to pass to a wing player going to the basket for  lay up. I actually won the tip, which given my lack of jumping ability was unusual, but I hit the ball over the head of my teammate. During a time out Jarrett asked me what went wrong. I responded by saying I hit the ball too hard. That didn’t suffice so he kept pressing me. Repeatedly I said I made a mistake but he wanted a reason. I finally said that I probably didn’t practice it enough as I wasn’t the man who usually jumped center for us. Enraged he took that to mean that we, as in the whole team, hadn’t practiced it enough and I was benched for the rest of the game.

I want to think that was psychology but with Jarrett you never knew. The year before after a 62-60 loss against Boothville-Venice Jarrett benched myself, Robert Montgomery, and Keith Holbrook Before our game against St. Martin’s. I had 13 points and 15 rebounds in that Boothville game so I was surprised that I was not going to start against one of our biggest rivals. I believe Jarrett was just looking to make us edgier. Well it worked because we did end up routing the Saints. But on this occasion against Reserve I believe he was frustrated with all of us and he knew I could take a punch. As I got on the bus he grabbed my arm and said ” I hope you learned something tonight.” Much later in the season, at a critical time, that lesson would bear fruit. I realized after the season that Coach had a reason for everything he did. Practice had nothing to do with the mistake on that jump ball. It was lack of focus.

We were now at 9-4 and needed to string some wins together. We did just that beating St. John Prep 76-39 and John Martyn 74-46. With a record of 11-4 we felt our troubles were behind us. Unfortunately that was not to be the case.

DOUBT CREEPS IN

The District 7A schedule would soon commence. We had three games left before starting district play. We would face Belle Chasse, a team we had already beaten earlier in the year before closing out with Boothville-Venice. Two of those games were at home. We still had a chance to get on a win streak and enter district play on a high note. In my mind we also had a shot at a thirty win season, something that had never been accomplished at Country Day.

We began with Belle Chasse at home and we raced out to an early lead. This time the Cardinals did not go away. Making matters worse the officiating was as bad as any game I had ever participated in. I was under our basket and had grabbed a loose ball with both hands. The Belle Chasse player then latched onto both of my wrists. I heard a whistle blow and assumed a foul had been called. To my shock the referee, standing out of bounds on the baseline right next to me, had called a jump ball. I slowly raised my arms, still holding the ball, and the Cardinal player still had my wrists in his grasp. I then turned to show the referee my situation in the hopes he would reverse the call. He just stared back at me blankly.

With the game going down to the final seconds the score was tied. We were working hard to get off a shot. With the clock ticking down I found myself foul line extended with a clean look at the basket. This was a favorite spot of mine so I decided to take the shot. As I was in the air and beginning to release the ball a Cardinal player leapt and collided with me. The impact altered my release and the ball  clanged off the rim. No whistle blew and Belle Chasse now had possession. With the seconds ticking away their only hope was a desperation shot at best. Then the inexplicable happened.

Chris McMorris, thinking we were behind, fouled one of Belle Chasse’s guards with almost no time left on the clock. That guard went to the line with a one and one situation and sank both shots, each time celebrating with a little dance at the foul line. A desperation heave by us fell short and we ended ups losing 79-77. It was the most points we had given up all year and our first loss at home.

My heart broke for Chris. He had made what I term a hustle error. I also believed, and still believe, that no one play determines the outcome of  game. We never should have been in that position to begin with.

We now had to go across the Mississippi River and play Belle Chasse again. Instead of playing with resolve we mailed it in. The Cardinals  set up in a zone defense, and our outside shooting was not accurate enough to make them come out of it. They collapsed on John all night and we lost to them again 67-63. John fought through all the extra bodies on him and got his points but the rest of us were in a coma of sorts. We had digressed.

Belle Chasse was in the same district as Newman and the Greenies had beaten them badly both times they played. We on the other hand were now 1-2 against them. We now had to go home and play Boothville. We beat the Oilers easily 67-47. Our record improved to 12-6.

Earlier in the season a few of us decided to go old school with our basketball shoes and wear Converse All Stars. They were canvas and lightweight. On the toes of both of my shoes I wrote the words WIN on one and STATE on the other. This was designed to refocus me if I ever looked down in a period of distress. I looked down at my shoes now but no motivation was there. I now had doubts about our ability to go forward and accomplish our goal.

Later that week I was on the second floor of our new library visiting with Tim. He was sitting down in one of the study rooms and I was standing in the doorway. I expressed my concerns to him that I felt we may not be able to go the distance. In a calm voice he looked at me and said ” We are going to win state.” Those words and the conviction he said them with made me realize that no matter what our record was we were still a very good basketball team with the best player in the state on our roster. We had flashed our potential throughout the season so we all knew how well we were capable of playing. I left the library feeling better and was now back in a good state of mind. We needed to go into district play and handle our business.

THE DISTRICT

Whether you won twenty games or none when district play began you had a clean slate. If you finished first or second you made the playoffs. If you didn’t you went home. Last year we went from playing schools in the river parishes to competing against an array of private schools like ours. New Orleans Academy (NOA) had been a nemesis but the previous year, after losing to them by seven at home, we punished them by seventeen at their gym and by twenty five at a neutral site to determine the district champion. They were not the same NOA this year, returning only one starter from that team in 1977. Crescent City also was down from the year before. While we beat the Pioneers easily last year both times we faced them they were decimated by graduation as well. Kehoe,Ridgewood, First Assembly, and St. Charles rounded out the rest of the district and none of them had the talent pool we had. In fact our bench could have started and we still would have been favored to run the table.

We entered district play with a record of 12-6. All of our opponents had been from higher classification schools and this was by design. Coach Jarrett knew to be prepared for the playoffs we had to play against tougher competition than what we would face in district play. That formula the previous year carried us to the the state title game. It didn’t hurt that our district opponents in 1976 were more talented than the cast we would face in 1977, as we had some tougher contests as a result.

There were kinks to be worked out. The previous year’s Cajuns entered district play with only four losses. Two of those had been by two points or less and all their games had been against similar caliber teams that we had faced this year. Other than the blow out loss to Salmen the 1976 team was a few bounces away from entering district with just one loss. We already had matched the number of losses that team had for the entire year and would now go at least six weeks without facing a stern test. Our motivation to improve would have to come from within and our hardest tests would most likely come in practice against ourselves.

Shortly before district play commenced an article came out in one off the local papers. Two quotes from Jarrett succinctly summed up our issues. “Our execution has been off and we aren’t as sharp as we should be.” He went on to add, “Although we have shown moments of brilliance, at times we just don’t seem to be working together.”

The article continued with additional commentary that focused on our performance or lack thereof. “The Cajuns inconsistency was apparent in their 79-77 and 67-63 losses to Belle Chasse, although Derenbecker scored a total of 53 points in those two ballgames.”

Writer Richard Tucker didn’t stop there. “Where Country Day has run into problems during the preseason has been a cold outside shooting game, but the Cajuns have offset that pretty well with one of the tallest starting lineups in the league.”

Now the odd thing about all of this is that we had a very close knit team. Our locker room was free of acrimony. The eight seniors on the team in particular were extremely tight. We often did things as a group whether it was going to the movies, meeting at Camellia Grill after games for a hamburger, or attending a Sugar Bowl. Teams under performing often have internal issues at the root of the problem. The answer to our problem was somewhere else and we were determined to fix it.

Our first game was at home against our football rival St. Charles. We had no problem with them winning 65-42. We then traveled to play yet another football focused school, First Assembly.

First Assembly’s gym was a pit with all the seating above the floor. Their best basketball players were their two football stars, Eric Collins and Bill Borges. Collins was an outstanding quarterback who had transferred to First Assembly from Brother Martin, while Borges was a punishing running back and linebacker. Borges was also a pretty good scorer. We won 72-55 but Borges tallied well over thirty points for the Crusaders. That game was memorable in my mind because of three incidents. One was Borges point total, which would emerge as a motivation tool for us when we played them again. Another involved me. The third incident however tested our resolve but also reaffirmed our commitment to one another.

My incident was more comical than anything else but it made clear to me whose opinion our coach valued. At the start of every game, and on every jump ball thereafter, we ran something called the tip play. I would line up on the center circle facing John. On either side of me on the sides of the circle were two wing men. Behind John was a player for defensive balance in the offhand chance we would lose the tip. John would tip the ball to me and I would in turn pass it to one of the wings running to the basket. This would often end up in a lay up and we could then go into our 2-2-1 full court press. We also employed an edge that was a borderline flaunting of the rules. Rather than wait for the referee to release the ball the jumper would leave the floor when he saw the referee bend his knees, as the ball would leave his hand shortly after that. This allowed us to “steal” the tip. This was the same tip play I had botched earlier in the year against Reserve that sent me to the bench.

Now we had ran this play for my entire time on the varsity so it always surprised me when we executed it in district play. Those schools we faced over and over had to know it was coming. But no one bothered to try and stop it until the First Assembly game.

I had a feeling they were onto us when two Crusaders basically lined up shoulder to shoulder with me. Both of our wings were unguarded. The smart thing to do would have been to tip it directly to one of the wings, or better yet tip it out in front of them so they could get the ball at full speed and let them attack the basket. But all of us knew it was not smart to improvise a play on Richard Jarrett’s team so I braced myself to go and try to beat both of these guys to the ball.

As soon as the tip went up both players crashed into me at the same time. I was able to get my hands on the ball but could not control it. A scrum ensued but the end result was that the tip play had been neutralized. Later in the game during either a time out or a change in quarters, I can’t recall which it was, I walked up to Coach Jarrett and suggested that on the next jump ball opportunity we go directly to one of the wings, as I was getting jammed. His response was merciless. According to Jarrett the problem was me, not the play design, and if I had done a better job the play would have worked. As soon as he finished laying into me John walked over. Apparently he had not heard the exchange but he basically told Jarrett the same thing I had. This time Jarrett just said “That’s fine” or something akin to that. I just looked at him with my hands at my sides palm up with a “What the hell?” look on my face. He just grimaced at me and turned away.

By now the game was winding down and Jarrett was emptying the bench. With less than a minute to go he signaled to Howell Crosby to enter the game. Then the unthinkable happened on a Richard Jarrett team. Howell said no.

Howell Crosby is as good teammate and friend as you could ask for. He used to stop by my house on Mardi Gras and visit with my mother and I. He even covered for me when I had too much to drink at a Mardi Gras parade, (as I seldom if ever drank when I was in high school), and put me in a spare bedroom at his house so I could sleep it off. I could hear him talking to my mother on the phone telling her I was taking a nap and would be home soon. He met me at Fat Harry’s so I could get my first legal beer when I turned 18 and he hand delivered a graduation gift to my home. We were teammates on our school record mile relay team, and no one worked harder in practice than Howell, even though he was behind McMorris, Bright, and Agular on the depth chart. His defiance of our coach because of what he felt was disrespect was a telling moment for all of us. His tears on the bus ride home tore a hole in me.

Because of his defiant act  Howell was dismissed from the team. Being a superb athlete he was quickly recruited by classmates Michael Dunn and Charlie Eshleman to join the Cajun soccer team, an established powerhouse in the metro area having won the state championship the year before. After a few days of practice Howell had broken into the starting line up. Coach Jarrett, in a change of heart, offered Howell a chance to come back if all of us agreed. Howell accepted the terms and he went to each and every one of his teammates and asked if he could rejoin the team. To a man we said yes. Frankly the locker room or our team would not have been the same without him. In my opinion it saved our season. I’d also like to think it put some fire in our belly. I know it did mine. Howell’s soccer career spanned three days.

As we rolled through the rest of the first round of games we began to gel and play to our full capability. Crescent City, Ridgewood, NOA, and Kehoe all went down by double digits. Against NOA we employed a 1-3-1 zone that effectively shut down the only two scoring threats the Cadets had, Barry Gurievsky and David Myers, as they were unable to work the perimeter to get open. With Chris up top, John in the middle, Shepherd and I on the sides, and Bright or Agular down low our collective wing spans made getting a clean pass off extremely difficult.

The Kehoe game was interesting for a variety of reasons. One was that John despised Kehoe. Their best player was named Gary Soileau and he was a major trash talker, despite the fact the Shamrocks were a horrible team. He really irked John, which meant that rather than taking it easy he was going to score at will. When Kehoe got the ball they immediately spread the floor and held the ball. They felt their only hope was to go four corners and shorten the game. We stayed back in a zone for awhile but finally Jarrett waved us out of it and we manned up on them. It wasn’t long before we turned them over and soon we were up by double digits. Late in the game however a play occurred that could have ruined our season.

Derenbecker got loose by himself and was heading to the basket. As he rose to dunk the ball Tommy Kehoe, ( yes his family owned the school), shoved John hard from behind while he was in mid air. He crashed to the ground and all of us witnessing it gasped collectively.  Fortunately John was not hurt but it sent a collective chill down all our spines knowing how fragile our season could become without our best player.

THE DISTRICT-SECOND HALF

We were now 18-6 and had reeled off seven wins in a row going back to our victory against Boothville-Venice. To start the second half of district play we had to travel to Destrehan to play St. Charles.

The Comets were one game behind us with a district record of 5-1. They had upset NOA, the preseason choice to finish behind us in the district, and they were a confident bunch. A little too confident. They decided to poke the bear with a stick. It was a major miscalculation on their part.

We had beaten them over a month ago by twenty three points. In their mind they felt they could close the gap on us. Their gym was packed and throughout the facility were signs in their fan’s hands and posted on the wall. The signs all virtually said the same thing, 17-0, which was the final score of our football game earlier in the school year.

We would be without Howell for the game, as he was nursing an injury, as well as starter Billy Shepherd, who had come down with a virus. So Jarrett decided to go big, starting 6’6″ Trip Ludwig in Shepherd’s place. Our front line was now 6’2 1/2″, 6’6″, and 6’8″. Our guards, Bright, McMorris, and Agular were all 6’0″. The size disparity was obvious and all the signs the Comet faithful had spread throughout the gym had made an impact, but not the one they were hoping for. We were ready to beat the hell out of this team.

Tim Bright had become the permanent starter at the two guard spot and his outside shooting had given us the added dimension we had been missing in the preseason. Joey Agular was now our sixth man and his athleticism provided instant energy the moment he took the floor. John was at the peak of his powers now, and nobody we played had an answer for him. Chris McMorris was firmly entrenched as the quarterback of the basketball team and he could break pressure by himself if necessary. The alleged reliance on a tall line up was now balanced with superb guard play complimenting a once in a decade player. On this night St. Charles would feel the full force of both dominant guards and imposing size on the front line.

The final score was 80-50 but it could have been much worse. We pounded the Comets on the boards and pushed them to the sidelines on the perimeter.

This change had not gone unnoticed by Jarrett. In another newspaper interview prior to the St. Charles game he acknowledged in print what we as a team already knew. “We are playing intelligent basketball so far and we’re not making a lot of mistakes.” He then added  “The play of our guards and forwards, especially McMorris, Agular, and Shepherd is really coming along.”

He wasn’t finished. “We’ve shown very good team defense and I think we might be surprising some people with that. Of course everyone has to look out for Derenbecker and don’t realize what our other people can do before it’s too late.”

He closed by saying “We don’t have a lot of good individual statistics, that is we don’t have a lot of people scoring in double figures, but that’s because we have been executing well as a unit.”

My clearest memory of that game was that I was getting a fair amount of shots, mostly the baby jump hook I had developed to score when close to the basket. In my entire high school basketball career I never notched a twenty point game. I had my share of sixteen and eighteen point games but never the big Two O. Late in the game I was open under the basket. I knew I was close to the magic number and was hoping for a pass. John had the ball and rose up. He was either going to shoot or pass. I put my hands up and waved and a second later I watched the ball kiss off the glass and into the basket. I finished the game with eighteen points. I did get to watch my mother, who had been keeping score in the stands, rush up to John after the game and demand an explanation of why he didn’t pass me the ball. Those of you reading this who knew my mother can only imagine the timbre of that conversation. I do recall John professing remorse and swearing that he did not see me. John finished the game with twenty five points followed by me with eighteen, and Tim with sixteen. In a show of respect after the game a Comet player walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and congratulated me and the team on the win. He then said he hoped we would win it all. I put my arm around his waist and said ” Don’t worry, we will!”

Our next game was at home against First Assembly and Jarrett decided to employ psychology on us again to ensure no let down occurred from our convincing win over St. Charles. Before practice we were sitting down as a team and Jarrett made the remark that if I had done a better job guarding Bill Borges in our previous game against them he would not have gotten over thirty points.

I took the bait. I promptly responded that I had not guarded Borges the entire game and when I had he did not score. Jarrett then said something to the effect of ” Ok you got him but once he gets ten points you are going to the bench.” A game that was never going to be in doubt was now of major significance to me. I had thrown down the gauntlet and I was determined to suffocate Bill Borges.

The night of the game I was at a fever pitch. I didn’t care if I scored or even got a rebound, all I wanted to do was play defense against Bill Borges. Once the game started I glued myself to him. I denied him the ball, fought over screens, and drilled a hole into his midsection with my eyes. My teammates were helping. They called out the screens and jumped out on them until I recovered, all the while harassing their assigned players as well. It wasn’t just me guarding hard, the whole team was clamping down.

At the end of the first quarter we were up 14-4 and Borges had a goose egg. In the second quarter Jarrett got playful with me. He put us in a 1-3-1 zone. Borges promptly hit a shot from the corner opposite of me. As we ran down the floor Jarrett held up a finger and said “That’s one.” I promptly yelled back “We’re in a zone!” On the next trip down Borges again went to the opposite corner from me and again he nailed a jumper. As before Jarrett looked up at me and yelled “That’s two.” I yelled back him, this time much louder. “We’re in a zone!!!”

As we ran down the floor I abandoned the zone and went and started guarding Borges again. When we got the ball back Coach Jarrett called time out and my night was done, but not for a bad reason. It was time to get our other guys some playing time.

Borges finished the game with exactly ten points, as did his teammate Eric Collins, but as a team we held them to an astounding twenty four points with the final score being 62-24. Derenbecker almost outscored First Assembly by himself with seventeen points with me next at eleven.The next day I did receive a pleasant surprise, but being me I screwed that up.

In the entrance to our gym hanging on the wall was a board. On it was engraved DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK, with a slot to insert a card with a players name on it. It was the highest honor you could receive from Coach Jarrett. This year no one had been given that designation but after the First Assembly game on the board in bold letters was WAUTLETT. The only problem was I spelled my name Wautlet. Rather than be happy I went to Coach and asked if he could correct the spelling of my name. Instead he just took the card down. So I went from being Defensive Player of the Week to Defensive Player of the Day. Another lesson learned. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

We were now in complete control and our dominance in the district was unquestioned. We defeated Crescent City 85-38, Ridgewood 69-30, NOA 58-42, and Kehoe 64-35. We finished district play unbeaten with a perfect 12-0 record and ran our overall mark to 24-6, the same record the 1976 team had finished with the year before. We were officially in the state playoffs. We now had the chance we worked for all year. We were ranked number one in the state in class A and were now in a position to compete for the title. All we had to do was finish the job. What we didn’t know is that we would face one more test of our character.

THE COUNTRY DAY MIRACLE

We had drawn a first round bye so we decided to go scout our potential opponent. A bunch of us piled into Charlie Van Horn’s father’s car and made the ninety minute trip to Thibodaux.

We walked in the gym and all eyes turned to this group of very tall young men climbing into the bleachers. We settled into our seats and watched quietly as the game started. It wasn’t long before we realized our next opponent would be the Plaisance Indians.

Plaisance had won the state title in 1975 and was led by three year starter and two time all state player Tom Green. At 6’0 Green was the tallest player on the Indian roster. Despite the fact that they had won the game easily to us they looked small and unimpressive. All of us left the gym confident that we would have no trouble getting past our first round opponent.

First round games had historically been difficult for past CD squads. The 1976 team was the first to accomplish the feat of winning one and it took a double overtime to get by Buras. I attributed this to the false sense of security we would get by playing in a weak district but in my mind we beat those district teams by margins appropriate with our talent level and coaching. A such we rode the bus to Catholic High’s gym in Baton Rouge with a calm reassurance that things would go smoothly for us. Hubris is a terrible thing. When the game started we realized we had run into a buzz saw.

The first quarter was back and forth and were down by two 14-12 when it ended. The Plaisance guards were faster than we anticipated and they had the tempo going at a break neck pace. The second quarter was worse. They outscored us 16-6 in that period and we were down at the half 30-12. I remember setting myself up for a charge only to watch my man float around me and score a lay up. We were all a bit shell shocked.

In the locker room no strategy was discussed. Jarrett demanded all of us to reach down inside and find the will to compete. We did have an ace up our sleeve and Jarrett decided to use it. Joey Agular was going to guard Tom Green in the second half.

The third quarter was better but we were still outscored 15-14. It was now 45-32 going into the fourth quarter. We had been down by as much as twenty three points. Joey continued to harass Green but John ignited. We outscored the Indians 20-4 in that quarter. With the game getting closer I stripped Green of the ball. As we went down the floor Tim Bright made a twisting drive down the heart of the Plaisance defense to score. The momentum was now totally in our favor. Earlier in the quarter I shot my little jump hook that actually grazed Green’s fingers before going in. The ball was now bouncing our way.

Late in the game I got involved in a tie up which resulted in a jump ball. We could not afford to lose a single possession so I had to win that tip. As we lined up my mind raced back to my benching against Reserve and the botched jump ball. John circled behind me and in a firm voice said, “I’m right behind you. Just tip it straight back to me.” I knew this was a  psych job on my opponent in the center circle so I said “No problem.” At that point John  got compromised and moved to my right. This would be more difficult for me as I would have to twist in the air to direct the ball back to John. Again John said “I’m off your right shoulder now.” I responded by saying ” I got you.”

I then settled into my stance and focused on the refs knees. As they bent I pushed off the ground as hard as I could and met the ball, twisting in the air flicking it directly to John with a backwards movement. I don’t even think my opponent left the floor.

With time running down a lob to Derenbecker and his laying the ball into the basket resulted in our taking the lead for the first time. The game ended with a Plaisance shot banging off the rim into my hands. I immediately curled up into a ball and dropped to one knee, completely trying to cover the basketball up. I waited for the buzzer to sound. At the last second an Indian player reached in to try and force a jump ball but before he could get a grip the horn went off. We had won 52-49. As I ran into the mob of fans that had rushed to the floor I realized I was still holding the game ball. I turned around and ran back to the referee to give it to him.

I then raced back to the happy throng. Robert Pratt met me at mid court and hoisted me off my feet with a bear hug. Isaac McMorris, Chris’ dad, hugged me and praised me for winning the tip on that critical jump ball. I saw the Plaisance coach on the sidelines. He wore a look of disbelief. I went over to him, extended my hand, and he graciously shook it. I knew he was in pain. Players like Tom Green don’t come around that often in small communities and to lose in dramatic fashion like that is horrible. I empathized because that is what happened to us against Newman earlier in the season.

Derenbecker had been spectacular scoring thirty of our fifty two points. Tom Green had been equally impressive scoring twenty six points of his own. Our victory was made up of little details. A hustling defender, an acrobatic shot, a successful center jump. But in the end our big gun had shown his grit. There would be more to come.

The Country Day Miracle, as the Times Picayune called it, was a focal point for us. We knew now that we had to bring our best effort every night or we could lose. It was a valuable lesson and one we took to heart.

ELTON

As we prepared for Elton I received surprising news. The defending state champion Davidson Warriors had lost their play off game. Davidson had returned all of their starters from the year before, including 6’5″ center Dean Shields, 6’3″ strong forward Roy Bowman, and star guard Curtis Britton, who had blistered us for 30 points in the state title game a year earlier. I had hoped for a rematch with them to avenge our loss from last year in the 1976 state championship game. Again it was another example of how treacherous and unpredictable the play offs could be.

We didn’t know anything about the Elton Indians other than it appeared that Indians was a popular mascot name in southwest Louisiana. But after our near nightmare against Plaisance we were not going to fool around. We jumped all over them and at the end of the first quarter we were up 20-6. To Elton’s credit in the second quarter they fought back, outscoring us 16-12. At halftime we were up 36-18.

Halftime was uneventful. Even though we had lost the second quarter Jarrett knew we were all business. In the third quarter we asserted ourselves again outscoring Elton 20-7 en route to a 66-41 victory. John was John, putting up 24 points for us.

We were now going back to the Top Twenty Tournament for the second year in a row. We also learned that we would not be the only standard bearer for the New Orleans metro area. Joining us in Lake Charles would be Archbishop Rummel in AAAA, and the Isidore Newman Greenies in AA. That was a solid testament to the quality of high school basketball in the Crescent City. We were one game away from getting to the title game for the second year in a row and two games from making history. At 26-6 we had won fifteen consecutive games and were undefeated against Class A competition. Our next opponent was of no consequence. At this point in time we felt we could compete with anybody. We also felt we had not yet played our most complete game. We were ready too explode, and it happened in our next contest.

WATERPROOF YES. SHOCKPROOF NO!

The Top Twenty Tournament was a media circus. While there was no social media in 1977 there was still plenty of publicity and attention.  Television, radio, and print media descended on Lake Charles along with bus loads of fans. The Cajun faithful were out in full force as well. They came by car, bus, and even private plane.

This was our second trip to the big show so we were confident and not in awe of all the hoopla surrounding the event. I remembered last year being star struck by all the pageantry and that it also took some time to get used to shooting in a large arena. Your depth perception has to adjust and as result that first semi-final often went to the team that made that adjustment the best. We left Metairie on Tuesday and our game was that night at 7:30. Prior to that would be a light workout in the afternoon. Jarrett had been interviewed by the Times-Picayune’s Bill Bumgarner. In that article he made an observation about the 1977 team that separated us from the 1976 team in a profound way. When asked if the long bus ride and practice prior to the game was a potential problem his response was surprising but gratifying. “I don’t think this ordeal in one day will hurt us. This is a smarter team than the one I had last season.”

We settled into the Howard Johnson motel. Room assignments were handed out by John and we moved in and began preparing for the events and the game that would follow that evening, including a 2:00 P.M. shoot around. Last year our hotel stay included some hijinks. We were housed at a Ramada Inn and I got pushed out of my room in nothing but my underwear. Standing outside was Bright covered only in a towel. He began to point at me and roar with laughter. I immediately grabbed his towel from him. Much to my surprise instead of a bathing suit all I saw was Tim’s completely naked body. He ran to his room and began banging on the door pleading to be let in. I still recall his cry for help. “Crosbeee open the door! I’m nude! Crosbeee!! I’m nude!!!” I must say the chambermaid on our floor cleaning rooms was not too impressed with Bright’s physique. I also had the pleasure of Howell calling my room every morning and impersonating my mother. “Merrill this is your mother. I want to have breakfast with you!” This year however there was no horseplay. We were on a mission. Other than the evening we depleted the HoJo’s inventory of fried clams on All You Can Eat Clams night we were a pretty sedate group.

We didn’t know anything about the Waterproof Tigers but we were aware that they played in the same district as last year’s champion Davidson. Their best and tallest player was James McFarland, a 6’3″ forward who would go on to attend Alcorn A&M on a football scholarship. We also knew that like us they played man to man and would use a full court press the whole night.

Despite our rocky start we had congealed into a formidable basketball team. Over the course of the season we had scored over eighty points five times and seventy points twelve times. On defense we had held our opponents under fifty points seventeen times, under forty points six times, and under thirty points once.  We were now 26-6 on the year and had won fifteen games in a row. We were poised to erupt. Waterproof never had a chance.

As predicted Waterproof pressed us the whole game and that turned out to be the worst possible strategy. We had a superb point guard in McMorris and big men to hit in the middle via our press break, who in turn found our guards and forwards going to the basket. This created numerous quick scoring opportunities.

Our passing game worked to perfection. With Waterproof overplaying us we were able to go backdoor and get lay up after lay up. Most importantly everyone, and I mean everyone, was in the zone offensively. We were all shooting lights out! I remember drilling a jumper from the foul line extended and converting a running hook shot off the glass that elicited a roar from the crowd and a head shake with a wry smile from my head coach.

I wasn’t the only one with a hot hand. John was solid and finished with twenty two points. I ended up with sixteen and Billy Shepherd had ten. Joey Agular was four for four from the field including a mid court steal that came about when I left my man to go trap a player on the sideline. Joey sensed the pass about to be made and broke quickly. I could hear his hand slap the ball and saw a blond haired blur hurtling towards the basket after the steal. Trip Ludwig came off the bench and was also four for four. In fact eleven players scored for us that night. But one of us had a game for the ages.

It took Tim Bright about half the season to work his way permanently into our starting lineup. Coming into the tournament he was averaging four points per game. Playing on a guard rich team with an All State center meant that touches were few. I usually took no more that five to six shots a game and some of those were off of offensive rebounds. Tim was a dynamic shooter and a fierce competitor. He was overdue for a big game and in typical Bright fashion he waited for the biggest stage to have his moment.

All Tim did was go seven for seven from the floor and five for five from the foul line to finish with nineteen points. He was so hot I’m convinced he could have thrown the basketball backwards over his head and it would have went in. It was a spectacular offensive display. There was however one more big play to be had and it was made by our most unselfish teammate.

Late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand all of the starters were on the bench. With less than a minute to play word got to us that we were one basket away from breaking the tournament record for most points scored in a game. I immediately jumped to my feet and yelled “One more basket and we have the record!”  Coach Jarrett promptly turned around and glared at me. Jarrett never ran up the score on anybody. In fact we had an unwritten rule that we would never score 100 points on an opponent if the game was not in doubt. We were trouncing Waterproof and there was no way Jarrett would condone scoring more than needed just to get a record.

Mark Haynes was on the floor. As I wrote earlier there was no better person on our team than Mark. He was a gifted player who had the misfortune of playing on a team full of not just good, but extremely good guards. Mark’s speed and quickness was invaluable during practice as he and others on our bench pushed the starters hard. Mark was our only guard who could simulate in practice the guard speed we would face in games, particularly in the playoffs. Despite playing in mop up situations he never complained and was always our most vocal cheerleader from the bench.

The clock was ticking down. With forty three seconds to go Haynes ended up with the ball in the deep corner. In fact he was right on the edge of the court, a good thirty feet from the basket. With no hesitation he rose up and fired away. The ball made a loud booming noise as it crashed in! With that shot Mark made history. Ironically he was not a great outside shooter but on that one he was money!

We had obliterated Waterproof 97-63! We had shot an astounding 61% from the floor! Bright, Agular, Ludwig, Howell Crosby, and Haynes were all 100% from the field and Howell converted both of his free throws. My percentage was 67% on six of nine shooting and that was surpassed by five other players! There were other records that night. Waterproof had fouled us twenty eight times and committed twenty eight turnovers!

The next day the Fourth Estate  had a lot of fun with their headlines. Country Day Soaks Waterproof. Country Day Finds Leak in Waterproof Defense. Cajuns Precision Drowns Waterproof. Waterproof Yes. Shockproof No! We had a lot of fun reading those articles and enjoying the moment. However we knew there was one more step to be taken. We had a date with destiny.

WHO WILL WE PLAY?

After we beat Waterproof we had to wait to see who our opponent would be in the title game. Sunshine was playing Grambling and both would be stern tests for us. Sunshine had 6’7″ Keith Terrell in the middle complimented by 6’4″ power forward Van Schultz. The Grambling Kittens, also known as Alma Brown Laboratory School, countered with 6’7″ center Clint Walker along with two 6’4″ forwards, Walter Bissic and James Bonner. Both teams were as big as we were and had good guard play too. This would be no cake walk.

Coach Jarrett was usually careful in his remarks to the press. He would be honest but generally would not say anything that could end up as material for an opponent’s locker room. However in an interview with Times-Picayune prep sportswriter John Joly he did just that.

Apparently responding to a question from Joly about who he thought we would be playing he did not hesitate. “We’ll be looking at this game and we figure Sunshine will win it. They are a tall ball club and we will play them close in hopes of getting the ball back and hoping to get a shot. We know very little about Grambling.”

When I read that I wasn’t sure about the correlation of playing close and getting the ball back and hoping to get a shot. In fact he used the word hope twice. What I did know is that if Grambling won they now had some additional motivation, particularly since most “pundits” were picking us to win regardless of who won between Sunshine and Grambling.

At 2:00 P.M. Thursday we all gathered in the Lake Charles Civic Center to watch Sunshine face off against Grambling. It didn’t take long before we realized our coach had been dead wrong with his prediction.

Clint Walker was a bespectacled wiry 6’7″ center with a feathery jump shot. He roamed around the perimeter of the key and knocked down jumper after jumper. Sunshine’s Terrell was not quick enough to guard Walker that far from the basket and when he did venture out Grambling punched the ball inside to their burly forwards Bissic and Bonner. Schultz could not guard both of Grambling’s big two so he was compromised as well. The Grambling guards were a swarming bunch, harassing their Sunshine counterparts.

All year my goal had been to earn the trust of Coach Jarrett to be assigned our opponents best player. While sitting in our locker room after practice one evening, in preparation for the start of the playoffs, Jarrett asked me if I was ready to guard Ray Baggett. Baggett was a 6’3″ All State guard who had scored over thirty points on us last year when we beat Oberlin to advance to the Top Twenty in 1976. Of course I enthusiastically said yes. I did not get my shot at Baggett but I saw another opportunity. I felt I was the one who needed to guard Clint Walker.

I noticed that Walker seldom drove to the basket and never posted up. I also saw that before he would shoot he would lower the ball to his right hip, drop his right leg back, and then go up into his shot. If I could deny him the ball and force him further out, and then close in on him after he caught the ball so he couldn’t drop it to his hip, I felt I could neutralize him. This would also allow John to stay near the basket and contend with Grambling’s two big forwards. If he did try to drive on me I felt I could body up on him and still keep him in check.

Jarrett must have been thinking the same thing. He was sitting in front of me two rows down. Late in the fourth quarter he turned his head around and asked me if I could guard their big man. It was unusual for him to ask our opinion on anything but I had already thought it through and said “I got him.” I had a tall order, no pun intended. Walker finished as the game’s high scorer with twenty three points.

We weren’t scheduled to play until Friday at 7:00. We had our last practice, which was essentially a walk through. The highlight was watching our three managers run Man Makers. Man Makers were what Jarrett called line drills. You ran full speed to the foul line and back, then to half court and back, then to the other foul line and back, and then to the end line and back, touching each line with your hands. It was a grueling drill, especially if we had to run a double, and they were even worse at the end of practice. Watching our loyal managers race up and down the gym floor provided some levity and we ended our last practice as a team on a high note.

That night a few of us went to the arena to watch some other games. Rummel had won earlier to make the finals in AAAA and would have to face 41-0 DeRidder in the game after ours. DeRidder featured All State player Mike Sanders, who had committed to UCLA.  Newman was also playing and was favored to advance to the state championship game for AA on Saturday. As I was watching the action on the floor I looked up and saw some familiar faces.

Walking down the steps next to our seats were some of the Grambling players, including Clint Walker. They sat a few rows down from us. Walker then began making shooting motions with his hand. I don’t know if that was just his normal routine or if he was trying to mess with our heads. What I did know was after watching John employ psychology during the critical jump ball I was involved in at the Plaisance game I felt it was time to use some of my own.

I got up, went down the stairs and sat one seat over from Walker. I began to make shooting motions with my hand. I then looked at him and said ” You better get your shots off tonight because tomorrow I’m guarding you.” I said it with a smile and he smiled back. I then got up and told the guys I was with to follow me to some other seats. Jarrett hated trash talk but I wanted to plant a seed in Walker’s head. Legendary Coach Bobby Knight, a man Jarrett admired and in many instances emulated, once said that every player thinks he is better than what he really is. In this case I knew Walker was better than me. I just didn’t want him to know it.

Later that night our youngest manager, Bruno Charest, was in my room. Bruno was French Canadian and a great kid. For some reason that I can’t recall he irked me and the end result was me trying to get him out of my room. I raised my left arm abruptly and got a stinger. The pain was awful and my arm was useless. I sat on the bed clutching it and thought I had just ruined the season. I typically recovered from these stingers quickly but this one hurt bad. I waited until I was alone in the room and called my mother. I wasn’t sure what could be done but I was miserable and had to tell someone.

A while later John showed up at my door with some Ben Gay or similar muscle relief cream. He said my mother gave it to him for my arm. I asked him if he was going to tell Jarrett. He said no and walked back to his room.

GAME DAY 

With a 7:00 P.M. tip off we had plenty of time to kill before our game. I could tell we were loose and ready. That time passed quickly and before long we were on our way to the Civic Center. My arm was back to normal and I was focused and ready to play.

The crowd was large. Mid week games, particularly between smaller schools, are generally played before a lot of empty seats. The year before in Alexandria it felt like the Rapides Parish Coliseum was at capacity every day, in part because the city was centrally located so fans could travel even mid week, plus the community as a whole embraced the tournament. That had not been the case in Lake Charles but tonight we had a packed house. I knew part of the reason was that Rummel was playing DeRidder after our game in the AAAA final. DeRidder was just up the road from Lake Charles, was 41-0, and as mentioned earlier had their six foot six marquee player Mike Sanders. That and the fact it was a Friday night all fueled the anticipation coursing through the arena. We would learn later that attendance was 6,147, just short of the arena’s capacity of 6,200.

In 1976 we had worn our white home uniforms for both of our games in the tournament. This year we wore our blue road uniforms. I’m not sure how all of that was decided, as I figured the higher seed would wear their home colors, but we were putting on our royal blue uniforms yet again. Interestingly each player had two numbers. At home, when wearing white, all our numbers were even. On the road, when wearing blue, they were odd. So instead of 34 I would be 35, John would be 41 instead of 40, and so on. There was something different about our uniforms this year. Some us had added a little different color scheme to our outfits.

Earlier in the season a few of us were sitting around the locker room trying to find something to rally around and unify the team. As written earlier we had gone through a down period. I came up with the idea of shaving our heads, as I thought it would make us look fierce and imposing. Gene Newton loved the idea. “I’ll do it!” he exclaimed! ” A bald basketball team! That would be cool!” However the others in the room were not as enthusiastic. Then Howell Crosby came up with a concept. We would add the color black to our uniforms by wearing black sweatbands and black shoelaces. This display of “Black Power” was in his mind what we needed to get us back on track. Howell was thinking more about the second team. He likened them to pirates and the wearing of black would represent a “No White Flags” mentality with the mission to beat the first team in practice, which in fact did happen occasionally. Everyone else thought that would be perfect for the first team as well so we went for it and before long we were off to Security Sporting Goods to get our accessories.

I don’t remember the first game we unveiled the new look but in the beginning the entire team bought in. Over time most of the guys went back to white shoelaces and no wristbands. A few of us stayed the course in some fashion or another and so it was still a part of our aura so to speak.

I dressed slower than usual. I knew this was the last time I would be putting on the red and blue and I wanted to savor the moment. The room was quiet. I’m not sure what Coach Jarrett told us but I know it was not a fiery speech. Jarrett wasn’t one for pep talks and he knew we didn’t need one.

We filed into the arena and took the floor for warmups. Grambling was in their red uniforms so I figured we must have chosen to wear blue again. I could appreciate that. Why mess with karma. After warm ups we went to our bench and stood for the national anthem and a prayer. Then it was time to announce the starting line ups.

At most games the visitors are introduced one by one and then the home team follows suit. At the Top Twenty in 1977  the teams were introduced simultaneously. Once your name was called you ran out to the center circle to either wait for your opponent or meet him if he was announced first. You then shook hands and went back to your respective benches.

Most players just jogged or lightly shuffled out to center court, which is what Clint Walker did when his name was called. I didn’t know if it was fate, luck, or providence that we got paired together but I saw a chance to make another statement to him. Once my name was called I sprinted to the center circle. As we grabbed hands I gave him my strongest grip and held it for about a half second longer than I had to. Then I smiled at him. This was my last chance to let him know that I was going do my level best to make his evening as unpleasant as possible.

A DATE WITH DESTINY

Unlike Waterproof we did not get off to a fast start. Grambling had scouted us thoroughly and had a plan. They opened in a zone and were focusing on John. Getting the ball to him was proving to be a challenge.

We were in our passing game. I had rotated to the short corner on the right side of the basket. Bright hit me and I squared up and nailed a twelve footer. We were finally on the board.

Next trip down I again went to the short corner on the right side. This time I saw an opening in the middle of the key so I flashed to it. Bright was on the the top of the circle and hit me again. I caught the ball, turned to face the basket, and shot it. It took a short bounce on the back of the rim and then settled into the basket.

As the quarter wound down I was again in the short corner on the right side. Again I flashed, this time going straight across the key to the opposite low block. Bright found me yet again. I caught the ball and  turned and collided with a Kitten player. He fell to the ground. I waited a split second for a whistle, heard nothing, and pushed the ball off the backboard into the basket.  The quarter ended with us trailing 9-6. Along with having all our points I also had shut out Walker on defense. But if were going to win we needed to get John Derenbecker untracked.

In the second quarter John moved to the perimeter and I went inside. John finally scored around the seven minute mark of the second quarter and the game began to turn. Derenbecker ended up with fifteen points and we took the lead with ten seconds to go after John completed a three point play after being fouled and scoring while driving the baseline.

I was still battling Clint Walker and he still had not scored. I had two fouls late in the second quarter when I got my third colliding into Walker while he was in the act of shooting. I tried to block his shot, which was not a smart decision given his five inch height advantage and my lack of jumping ability. I had to go to the bench and watch him make one out of two from the charity stripe. I had added another basket in that quarter and now had eight points.

John’s three point play sent us to the locker room with a 27-26 lead as Grambling scored again before the end of the half. We had outscored them 21-17 in the second quarter. Again there was no dynamic speeches at half time. We were two evenly matched teams. Grambling had not won twenty two games by accident.

I spent the third quarter cheering my team from the bench. Trip Ludwig replaced me to start the second half  and he played very well. We switched from man to man to a zone and the back line of Billy Shepherd, John, and Trip made it difficult for the Kittens to get easy looks. We outscored Grambling 15-12 in that quarter and lead by four 42-38.

I went back in for the fourth and final quarter of my Country Day basketball life. The zone we had employed in the third quarter had proved effective against Walker as he still did not have a field goal. Grambling’s two big forwards however were scoring. James Bonner and Walter Bissic were stepping up for Grambling. They would finish the game with twenty two and seventeen points respectively.

The fourth quarter was intense. We had gone back to playing man to man again. Shortly into the quarter Walker squared up on me and drilled a jumper in my face. He then muttered something like “I’m back!” I replied by saying “Bull$&%@!”

Grambling would not go away. We kept trading baskets and every possession was critical. On one missed shot I went up behind Walker, pulled the ball out of his hands from behind, and put it in back into the basket for my tenth point. Our lead had now grown to seven. Chris McMorris was also playing well, as he now had eleven points.

As the clock wound down Grambling scored and we were up by five. A turnover here would have shifted momentum to the Kittens. Jarrett knew they would be in a man to man full court press us and he had the antidote. We were going to ice them.

The icer is a simple play and an absolute dagger to the heart of the team pressing. Four of us line up across the floor even with the foul line closest to the basket we are inbounding from. Two of us would be stationed on the far sidelines and two more would be foul line extended. At the slap of the ball all four of us break towards the basket where the inbounder had the ball but one designated player would then reverses course and race to the opposite basket. A long pass is then thrown and if successful it results in an uncontested lay up.

John  was our inbounder and at 6’8″ could easily throw over anyone trying to guard him on the baseline. McMorris was the going to be the receiver. He was lined up foul line extended directly in front of John. This created a straight line and an easy pass for John if Grambling overplayed on defense and McMorris was able to get free.

The play worked perfectly. Chris broke into the open and John lasered the ball into his hands for an easy layup. Unfortunately Grambling responded with yet another score and again we were in a time out situation.

Jarrett decided to call the exact same play again except this time I was going to be the target. Now this would be more difficult to execute. John would be throwing the ball across the court instead of down the sideline, and if I got open I would be attacking the basket from the left, which was not my natural hand to shoot lay ups with. There was no turning back now so we took the floor and waited for the whistle and the subsequent slap of the ball. As it turns out scoring would be the last thing I had to worry about.

On the slap I lurched forward and then turned and blasted down the left sideline. I looked up and instead of the ball coming to me all I saw was it arcing straight up. I immediately doubled back and caught it near mid court. I knew the last man Jarrett wanted handling the ball in the middle of the floor was me but streaking up the side of the court was John. I hit him with a pass and he went to the right side of the basket and knocked down a jumper just before the buzzer sounded. We had won 63-56!

Pandemonium ensued. Our fans stormed up to the roped areas keeping them from the floor as the rest of us were celebrating wildly. Once order was restored we shook hands with our valiant opponent and waited for the trophy presentation. As we lifted the big prize in the air we took in the cheers of our fellow students, teachers, parents, and former teammates who had come to support us.

John finished the game with twenty nine points and fourteen rebounds. He was thirteen of twenty two from the field. McMorris finished with thirteen points on six of eleven shooting, and I ended up with ten points on five of eight shooting along with six rebounds. Clint Walker finished the game with three points. He was one for thirteen from the field. We ended our season with a record of 28-6.

Once in the locker room the reality began to set in. There was still some raucous laughter and celebrating but for the eight seniors in the room there was also the reality that we would be pulling our uniforms off for the last time. Jarrett was surveying the room. He looked over at me and said “Merrill you played an outstanding game even though you had three fouls.” Years later I was talking with John and I asked him what would make Jarrett give me such a backhanded compliment after our last game and winning a championship? John’s response was illuminating. He said “Merrill even then he was still trying to make you better.”

I will admit I did earn some praise from him in the media two days after that game. On Sunday March 13, 1977 an article appeared in the Lake Charles American Press titled “It’s happy days for Country Day”. Midway through the article I was spotlighted for the very thing I had worked so hard to become adept at, my defense. The following is a direct transcript of excerpts from that article.

“At the start of the third quarter, Jarrett benched starter M.C.Wautlet in favor of Trip Ludwig, but it wasn’t because of any ineffective play by the 6’2” senior. “Ludwig went in because Wautlet likes to reach and we wanted to save him for the final quarter” Jarrett said.”

“Wautlet had three personal fouls on him but had smothered Grambling’s Clint Walker, who had 23 points in the Kittens semi-final victory over Sunshine. While holding Walker down, Wautlet scored eight first half-points. Wautlet returned at the start of the fourth quarter and continued his fine defensive work.”

“He did a good job on the player, (Walker), who had 23 points in the first game” Jarrett said.

The article closed by saying that Jarrett’s quote was a “mild understatement”. Of course the sports writer didn’t know that coming from our coach that was glowing praise. I will say it was the most ink I had ever gotten in an article and as such Randy Soileau, wherever you are, thank you!

AFTER GLOW

The New Orleans area had a lot to celebrate. Shortly after we beat Grambling the Rummel Raiders, behind Wade Blundell, Dean Carpenter, and Barry Barocco upset the 41-0 DeRidder Dragon to win the AAAA title. On Saturday the Newman Greenies won their championship as well.

The accolades began to roll in. Derenbecker was named MVP of the district and Jarrett was Coach of the Year. John, Chris, and myself were named first team all district, while Tim, Joey, and Billy were named honorable mention.

Our local paper in Jefferson Parish, The East Bank Guide, named John to the first team, me to the second team, and Chris honorable mention.

In the Top Twenty John was named to the all tournament team. Earning one vote was Tim Bright on the strength of his game against Waterproof.

John Derenbecker was named first team All State and Player of the Year in Class A. Richard Jarrett was named Coach of the Year.

We never lost again after falling to Belle Chasse for the second time. We won seventeen games in a row and finished undefeated in Class A competition. We won three out four games against AAAA schools, six out of eight against AAA schools, and six out of nine against AA schools.

Our largest margin of victory was forty-seven points against Crescent City. Our largest margin of defeat was nine points against Salmen. All other losses were by five points or less.

Our highest single point game was 97 against Waterproof. Our lowest scoring game was 49 against Landry. The most points we gave up to any one team was 79 against Belle Chasse. The least amount of points we gave up in one game was 24 against First Assembly.

On the season we scored 2,377 points resulting in 70 point per game average. We gave up 1,727 points for a 51 point per game average, which meant our average margin of victory was by 19 points.

We lost only one game at home that year by two points to Belle Chasse.

We had competed in three invitational tournaments prior to the start of district play and failed to win any of them. Three of our six losses came in those tourneys. Two of the teams that beat us later in the year, Salmen and Belle Chasse, were schools we had beaten in our first meeting with them that season.

Newman, who we almost beat our second game of the year, went on to win all their games but one en route to their state championship. They split a home and home series with De La Salle. The schools were located literally down the street from each other and both games were decided by last second shots.

We only had four players under six feet tall on our roster with the shortest being 5’9″.

Along with a heroes welcome back at school we, along with Rummel and Newman, were honored by the New Orleans Jazz, our NBA team, with tickets and an announcement at their game against the New York Nets.

The team had a personal celebration at Tim Bright’s house at a party thrown by his parents. It was April Fools Day. We had a free throw shooting contest in Tim’s driveway and we all received posters of ourselves created from game photos.

Graduation would be about a month or so away. We would soon all be going in different directions. While we reconvened a few times over the next few years to play in reunion games that night at Tim’s house was our last together as the 1977 Country Day Cajuns. We celebrated our commitment to one another and we celebrated making history.

Some months later we received a present from our coach. Coach Jarrett  had a caricature made of each player with their number and a recap of the season emblazoned on it. On all of them Jarrett wrote “Thank you very much for a wonderful season.” Mine had an additional sentence. “I miss you very much this season.” I missed him too. I still miss him. The last time I saw him was in 1995. We reunited as a team to play the current Country Day varsity. We all pitched in for his plan ticket so he could be on the bench with us. Always our coach I actually I received a compliment from him at half time of that game. He said “Those were some good power moves you had in the first half.” Even after eighteen years we still played well together. Howell Crosby hit a three pointer before the end of the half to give us our first lead and in the second half we pulled away to win 59-39 in front of a packed house of current Cajuns along with our family and friends. Although Jarrett and I did have some occasional phone calls 1995 would be the last time any of us saw our coach in person. He loved all of us and by demanding nothing less than our best we were able to make history in 1977.

AN UNSOLVED MYSTERY

A tradition at Country Day in the Jarrett era was that before every home game we would take the floor and warm up to Sweet Georgia Brown, the same song the Harlem Globetrotters used. Our team was a funky bunch. We liked to groove to Boz Scaggs, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and even the old Motown hits. A popular act in 1977 was the Brothers Johnson, a duo with a chart topper called I’ll Be Good To You. Mark Haynes claimed to be related to them, which none of us believed, but that song was popular on the team. A little too popular.

At one home game, instead of bursting into the gym to Sweet Georgia Brown, emanating from the little cassette player on the floor near our basket was the Brothers Johnson singing I’ll Be Good To You. How it got there was a mystery but we warmed up happily to a song more in line with our musical tastes than SGB. That happiness didn’t last long.

As soon as Jarrett entered the gym and heard the music his face reddened instantly. He walked over to the cassette player, ejected the tape, placed in on the floor and with one stomp of this foot disintegrated the Brothers Johnson. He then yelled at us to return to the locker room.

I have never been interrogated but I have a good feeling what it must be like because Jarrett wanted to know very badly who switched the tape and he was grilling us hard. I didn’t know and whoever did know wasn’t talking. At last Jarrett gave up and sent us back into the gym. We got back on the floor just in time to start the game.

Afterwards we conducted our own investigation but came up empty. Our initial thought was that it was Haynes, because of his professed familial ties to the Brothers J, but he denied it with the conviction of a man about to be sent to the electric chair. We then focused our attention to our locker room Clown Prince Timothy Bright, but he too professed his innocence. I doubt Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, or Dave Robicheaux could have solved the case. The next home game Sweet Georgia Brown was once again wafting through the rafters of the Grimm Gym. The Brothers Johnson would be heard only in the recesses of our memory.

EPILOGUE

They say the worst thing that can happen to a person is to peak in high school. Even though we ended our high school experience with a championship I’m happy to say that all of us went on to accomplish even more milestones. This group won a state title for a reason. The following is what I know about all but a few of the men and women who were a part of that team.

RICHARD JARRETT: Coach Jarrett went on to win another state title at Country Day in 1980. He later followed his old boss at Country Day, Emmett Wright, to Woodberry Forest School in Virginia before settling permanently in Beaufort, South Carolina with his wife Sue. He passed away in 2016.

JOHN DERENBECKER: John accepted a basketball scholarship to Centenary College where he played for two years before transferring to Vanderbilt University to play for the Commodores serving as a team captain at both schools. He later earned a law degree from LSU and is now the In House Legal Counsel for North Oaks Medical Center. His middle son Matt also won a championship at Country Day before playing collegiately at LSU, Dayton, and the University of New Orleans. John resides in Hammond, LA.

MERRILL WAUTLET: I graduated from Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana and later got into coaching before moving back to New Orleans to start a banking career. I’m currently the Northwest Louisiana Market President for Cross Keys Bank, having moved back to Shreveport to be closer to my two special needs sons who reside at Holy Angels here in town.

CHRIS MCMORRIS: Chris attended McNeese State University and settled in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where we won our title. He is a Health Care Consultant and lives with his two youngest children.

BILLY SHEPHERD: Billy went on to earn All State honors his senior year at Country Day while leading the Cajuns to another district championship. He is a partner in the law firm of Shepherd, Prewett,& Miller in Houston,Texas.

TIM BRIGHT: Tim attended the University of Virginia and now, along with his older brother Edgar, runs Standard Mortgage Company in New Orleans. He is also a real estate developer in Cashiers, North Carolina situated in the Blue Ridge mountains.

JOEY AGULAR: Joey attended Tulane University. Now known as Joe Agular, he is a partner in the New Orleans based investment banking firm Johnson Rice & Co.

TRIP LUDWIG: Trip, like John and myself, also attended Centenary College. Trip is now  President of Ludwig Buildings, Inc. located in Metairie, Louisiana.  His son Eddie played on the same Country Day championship team as John’s son Matt and he too went on to play college basketball at LSU. Eddie, aside from working with his father, is also an assistant basketball coach with the Cajuns and is the only person in school history to win a championship at Country Day as both a player and a coach. He is the leading scorer in the history of Country Day basketball.

HOWELL CROSBY: Howell attended Tulane University and also earned a law degree and MBA from there. He is the managing partner of the Chaffe, McCall Law firm in New Orleans and sits on the board of his family’s timber company. Howell married his high school sweetheart, Katie Andry, who was a statistician on the basketball team.

MARK HAYNES: Mark attended Southern Illinois University before joining the United States Air Force. He works for Grainger in Baton Rouge and lives quietly with his wife among numerous family members on land they own in the tiny rural community of Lobdell.

CHARLIE STECK: Charlie became a starter and a tri-captain with Billy Shepherd and Gene Newton on the 1978 Country Day basketball team. I’m not sure where he is today.

GENE NEWTON: Like Charlie, Gene became a starter and captain on the 1978 Cajun basketball team. He married his high school sweetheart MissE Crosby, ( Howell’s sister), and now resides in Conway, Arkansas.

CHARLIE VAN HORN: Charlie attended Washington & Lee University and later went to work for the family business, the Oliver H. Van Horn Tool Company, in New Orleans. Charlie eventually rose to become President of the company. After selling his business Charlie retired but is still our manager, organizing reunions for our class the past twenty years.

HOWARD SCHLOSS: Howard Schloss attended Southern Methodist University. He resides in the Washington D.C. area where he has spent the last thirty years working in politics and communications.

ROBERT PRATT: Our official scorer, Robert attended Sewanee and Tulane. He earned a law degree and is also engaged in the construction business. He lives in New Orleans.

BIBBA BULLINGTON: One of our statisticians, Bibba was an All State volleyball player at Country Day who also won a state championship in her sport. She attended the University of Virginia and now lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

KATIE ANDRY: As mentioned earlier Katie Andry is now Katie Crosby. She attended Vanderbilt University. She is the Chairman of the Board of Fidelity Bank headquartered in New Orleans.

To Charlie Steck, Scott Miler, and Bruno Charest wherever your travels have taken you I wish you the best.

FINAL THOUGHT

Every year I return to New Orleans to ride in Mardi Gras. This past year a member of my Mardi Gras Krewe, who also happened to play on the 1980 Country Day championship team, asked me who I thought would win in a game between the two. I said we would have and I politely explained why. The truth is that I didn’t give him the real answer as to why we would have won. The real reason is none of us on the 1977 team would even think to ask that question. The only reason you would ask a question like that is if you weren’t sure about the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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