Their warm-ups were deceiving.
Their numbers made it easy to underestimate them.
Their school — the city’s smallest public middle school tucked into a northeast Lincoln neighborhood in the shadow of Northeast High School, the Havelock yards, and the University of Nebraska’s land — didn’t draw 60 kids to the intramural basketball tryouts.
All of which is why, when people asked which teams made the finals, the answer inspired incredulity.
Um, yes, — and the seven Dawes Middle School Diamondbacks who made up the top seventh-grade team won the championship — ending the season undefeated.
“It didn’t even feel real at that point,” said Brittney Hodges-Bolkovac, the Dawes athletic director who was cheering on her team when they beat Scott Middle School 54-50 last week, securing the trophy in the championship series begun several years ago.
The athletic director knew that this was a bigger deal than the Dawes seventh-graders probably realized, that the little north side school winning against bigger, more affluent teams on the south side of the city — the teams where most of the kids played on competitive club teams — meant something.
“I told the kids, this is a big thing for northeast Lincoln — you’re more than the seventh-graders at Dawes,” she said.
Those boys represented all the alumni liking Hodges-Bolkovac’s photos and updates on social media, not just Dawes parents, students and teachers, but parents whose kids might not go to Dawes but who remember walking those halls themselves, and the folks who’ve lived in northeast Lincoln for generations.
Hodges-Bolkovac gets that this is intramurals, not a high school championship, and there weren’t crowds of people filling the North Star bleachers for the championship or crowding into the small middle school gyms where most of the games were played.
But they were underdogs who came out on top.
“It’s the first time Dawes won a championship in basketball,” said Devon Merrill, one of the players.
Intramurals is a different animal than select or club sports: Everybody gets to play and schools typically field two to three teams.
That means at many schools, the students on the “A” team have the most experience and likely have played a significant amount of basketball.
At Dawes, 13 seventh-graders tried out, seven of whom were on the “A” team that won the championship. Six students — some of whom had never played basketball — were on the “B” team. Three of the A team members played some of both.
Their skill levels were mixed: Three of the boys played on a club team — though one of those students had experience in other sports but not basketball. Some of the other boys played on YMCA teams, or shot baskets at recess.
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Having a small team meant there was little depth on the bench. At the first game, one player was injured and another was gone: that meant nobody on the bench. But they won that game, and they kept on winning.
Mackenzie Burk, their coach, stressed working as a team.
She and Hodges-Bolkovac stressed sportsmanship and being humble. They wouldn’t run up the score on another team.
“We’ve been on the other side of that,” Burk said.
The coaches talked to the players about what’s important: High school coaches don’t just look at raw talent, they look at academics and how well students work with coaches and other players, Hodges-Bolkovac said.
They had a rule: Anybody with a C or missing class assignments had to go to study hall before they could practice.
It was hard at first — there were competing egos and differences between Dawes coaches and those who coached some of the boys on the club team, but as the season went on, things began to jell.
“The longer we played together it came more naturally,” said player Jack Sindelar.
The opposing teams would size them up — and they didn’t put it all on the court for those warm-up drills.
“It looked like it was 5 in the morning and we’d gotten (them) out of bed,” Hodges-Bolkovac said.
Until the games started.
At the championship, like the rest of the season, everybody played a part.
Adam Tong — small but fast and a great rebounder — made the first basket. They were up by 18 points at the half, then fell behind.
They fought back. Kajaun Sidney’s three-pointer got them back in the lead, set the tone. In the final minutes of the game Kendall Hinton grabbed some pivotal rebounds and K.G. Gatwech’s free throws ended the game.
“It felt good,” said Mason Ford, who protected the ball.
Hodges-Bolkovac said the team’s success shows more than the talent of players, it says something about the community Dawes has built.
“They’re from all different backgrounds, there were all these dynamics and we were able to come together for a common thing.”
Breaking down Lincoln's public schools
Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSreist.