Braylon Morris wound up into a leap, just as he does when he throws down a dunk. Once levitated to the net, the junior punched one of the two basketballs clogging it, knocking both loose and allowing his teammates to resume their shooting drill.
Upon returning to one of the three shooting lines the Newark High School team had formed, on the left elbow beside the free throw line, he cracked a smile.
As he reached the front of the line, he traded the grin for the expressionless, determined look that he and his teammates had been sporting for the majority of a Thursday practice before Friday night’s rivalry duel with Lancaster High School.
Those actions — the leap, the look and the smile in between — occurred in a matter of a few seconds, but they encapsulate the potential of the Newark Wildcats squad that is undefeated in Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division play and 13-1 overall.
The leap signifies ability. This team has it. One does not go on a 10-game win streak without it.
The look demonstrates the team’s intensity. They watch ten minutes of film before practice every day. They study game plans diligently. In practice, they move from drill to drill promptly, as if they are on a mission and they know that they need every second of screen defeat, defensive slide and press break work in order to accomplish it.
The smile represents what it could take to elevate this Wildcat team even higher: more fun.
Jeff Quackenbush, in his 25th season as the program’s head coach, has been around high school basketball long enough to see it.
In between his displays of savvy post moves, vicious drives to the hoop and commanding rebounds, senior Steele Meister snuck in a few chuckles at Thursday’s practice. On the telling end of the jokes was the one who shows up to games in dress clothes.
“(Coach Quackenbush) is a hilarious guy,” Meister said. “He balances really well. He knows when to be serious and when to be goofy, and I think that’s what makes him such a good coach.”
Early in the Friday, Jan. 19 game against Lancaster, though, no one was in the mood for giggles.
When Quackenbush called a timeout with 3:24 remaining in the second quarter, his team found themselves down 15-11 against a 5-7 Lancaster team. Two late Meister buckets evened the score before halftime, but even with the game tied, the Wildcats looked off. They brought shooting woes with them into the locker room, having missed all nine of their 3-point attempts in the half.
They needed a spark.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, sophomore Jake Quackenbush seized the opportunity to give them one.
On the first possession of the half, the coach’s son attempted a lob pass from beyond the arc. It was tipped, and incidentally fell in the basket. On the next possession, Morris hit a triple from the right corner, giving the Wildcats a 6-point lead.
Then, with 6:15 remaining in the third quarter mark, Jake decided to pull up from the top of the key. He was as close to the halfcourt line as he was the three-point line.
“We needed a big shot. We hadn’t made a shot all game,” he said.
Was he deliberately looking for an opportunity to get one off from behind the arc, knowing that someone had to get the momentum rolling?
From the outside looking in, it may be surprising to think that Jake, a sophomore who is playing varsity basketball for the first time this year and also trying to tune out the pressure that comes with having one of the most recognizable kin names in Ohio high school basketball circles, felt emboldened enough to put a rivalry game’s fate in his shooting wrist.
But the truth about this team — and the reason why varsity vets like Meister and Morris think that it can be even better than last year’s district title squad — is that this is just what these guys do. They pick each other up, no matter the setting.
“When you go through things that are tough, that brings everyone together,” Meister said. “On the court, off the court. Things out of school, and in school. When you have a group that is together, and that wants to be together, it creates something special.”
The Wildcats held a 35-23 lead at the end of the third quarter, and maintained a double-digit advantage for much of the fourth.
With 1:31 remaining, a foul sent sophomore Ty Gilbert to the free throw line. In between his two shots, Morris and Jake whispered to each other at halfcourt.
Both were smiling.
These moments — brief, connective pauses from the rigor of focus — are one of the beautiful intricacies of sport. They make intensity sustainable in the long term. They occur naturally when players are in sync as human beings.
“It’s not like we’re just teammates; we’re also friends,” Morris said of the team, the day before the game. “We’re all a big friend group at this point.”
In terms of developing a team destined for success, the Newark Wildcats figured a lot of things out early in the season. Talent? Check. Work ethic? Check. Unity? Double check.
But in recent games, despite the win streak, the team may actually be holding itself back from unleashing its true potential.
“I thought today, and here lately, we’ve played a little tight,” Jeff Quackenbush said after Friday’s game. “You have to relax, just go out and play and enjoy it.”
Perhaps, the recipe for taking that next step toward another district title and beyond is more fun.
“They make mistakes, and they need to learn from them, but they need to enjoy the success they are having,” Quackenbush said.
He told his players to enjoy the night of a rivalry win. Saturday morning, it would be back to business, in preparation for Tuesday’s Pickerington Central matchup. Well, not all business. High school basketball is still a game, and its players still teenaged boys.
Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.