By Karl Bullock
It’s past 8:30 p.m. at Whitney Young Magnet High School during the first matchup of the IHSA regional playoff matchup between Von Steuben and Riverside Brookfield.
With less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, players and coaches on both benches show a stark contrast in body language despite a mere four-point differential on the scoreboard.
For the Bulldogs of Riverside Brookfield, there is optimism in the facial expressions of the players. The game is under control. All that’s left to do is minimize mistakes and their reward is advancing into the next round to face Whitney Young.
A few feet to the left Vince Carter, co-head coach of Von Steuben, is seen up and animated at one of his senior players, Justin Mcnair. Missing a key defensive assignment, McNair-Sneed leaves his man wide open for a crucial three-point shot that sunk Von Steuben into a seven-point deficit.
“If he swings back around, you fight over the screen,” Carter says during a timeout. “He’s not going anywhere if you stay on him.”
Carter’s late-game teaching underscores a frustrating theme for his squad this season: their ability to compete late in games and yet still find ways to lose them.
Although the team’s 4-17 record was disappointing, there was more to the story. All season long, this team approached each game with a quality not measured in stat sheets: fortitude.
Von Steuben’s journey began back in January. At the time, there was a feeling that something special was going on. Coming off a comeback win over Prosser, a conference foe, Von Steuben was in prime position to challenge for supremacy in the Chicago Public League Red-North division.
Instead of riding that momentum into a conference title, the losses for Von Steuben began to pile up. In the span of one month the team went 1-7, burying any hope of achieving their goal of a conference title.
I was drawn to this team because no matter the chaos or late game nail biting moments they provided on the court, they kept their composure off the court. A trait resulting in their senior leadership. Every day for four hours the seniors brought heavy intensity to practice holding the underclassman accountable for bringing energy to the varsity level.
“We decide to fight from the tip off until the buzzer goes off,” senior forward Donovan Maxey said.
Throughout the season, a plethora of clichés were thrown around from coaches and players alike as the mounting losses put pressure on the team to win.
Despite the pressure, every practice was met with optimism and words of encouragement from the seniors to never give up.
“We’re a good team and our record doesn’t show who we are,” senior captain Rafael Cruz tells me after even though I can see the disappointment in his glare as he stares at the floor.
As the final seconds tick off the clock during the IHSA regional, Von Steuben’s season comes to an end in a 69-61 loss.
In the middle of disgruntled parents, the players efforts slowly the effort of the players slowly give way as they come to grips with the fact that it’s all over.
Walking towards the bench, they perform the traditional post-game handshakes. Gathering their bags they head to the locker room for the proverbial speech from their head coach Marvin Williams.
Two days later, seniors sit down to reflect on their final game. In much brighter spirits they admit, almost unanimously that they knew that game, given the way the season went, would be their last.
Leave it to Cruz, the emotionally driven senior captain to give his final take of defiance despite the loss.
“I wanted them to remember who they played,” he said. “Gave them everything we had.”