Dunn Middle School stepped onto the basketball court Wednesday night with a unique opportunity. Rarely do people get to accomplish something that will echo through history, especially before they are old enough to drive.
For a collection of young student-athletes, Wednesday provided such a chance. DMS faced off against Highlands Middle School in the last game of the season, needing just 24 more minutes of the brand of basketball that led to 11 wins in 11 tries. The Greenwave didn’t start the year looking for perfection, but now that they were here, the finish line loomed right over the horizon.
DMS Coach John Gage knew his team could handle the moment.
“I can never question their effort,” Gage said. “They come out and compete every night. They do what they’re supposed to do in school then they come out and work hard in practice. It shows on the court. They play really play hard as a team.”
When broken down to its simplest terms, basketball is a fairly easy sport to comprehend - put the ball through the hoop. Basketball, like any other team sport, also has many underlying components that prove vital to success. Coaches talk about teamwork, unselfishness and playing hard for a reason.
Gage checked most of those boxes before the season started.
“The first couple of practices, I said to the team that if we come out and play like we’re capable of playing we have a good shot at winning the conference,” said Gage. “They’re unselfish guys. We had a 12-step process. We approached it game-by-game and that was our mindset for the season. They don’t care who gets the credit, who gets the glory, they just come out and play hard. Their unselfishness is a real credit to their character.”
DMS on Jan. 29 survived its only real scare when Shughart Middle School in Fayetteville launched the strongest challenge to a potential perfect season. The Greenwave survived the back-and-forth tilt and came away with a valuable lesson on living in the moment and not looking too far ahead.
“The day after tryouts, when they announced who made the team, the one goal I wanted was to be conference champions,” Seventh grader Ro’Mello Pegues said. “We’ve been working hard as a team and they’re like my brothers.”
HMS faced the daunting proposition of derailing this season-long quest, knowing only perfection could stop perfection. Unfortunately for the visitors, DMS left little doubt as to how this journey would end.
The Greenwave led 25-3 at halftime, surrendering a single basket in a defensive exhibition that would make any varsity high school coach smile. DMS dominated on both ends of the court in the 46-12 Harnett County Conference-winning effort, culminating an undefeated season few saw coming.
“It means everything,” said Mathew Strickland, the lone eighth grade starter on a young team. “We’re all friends off the court, but on the court, we’re family. We started off as a good team winning games and we just really started coming together. At the beginning, I didn’t know but as we went through the season, we were getting better and we weren’t losing so I thought we had a chance [to go unbeaten].”
Players knew the significance of such an accomplishment and embraced the challenge head on.
“No one can remember the last time a team went undefeated so this is a big accomplishment for the school,” Pegues said. “We have that chemistry on and off the court. We spend the night at each other’s houses and go to open gyms to play. When we’re at practice we always want to be energized and get better. This has been a special season.”
Coming into the season, DMS possessed all the traits that make up great teams - size, athleticism, speed and a tenacity on defense. What separated the Greenwave from a great team and a historic one, Gage said, was their desire to learn and play together.
“I wasn’t even thinking about an undefeated season,” said Gage. “It’s so competitive in practice and it shows up in the game. I felt like if we came out and played to the level we’re capable of playing that we would see these kinds of results. I had a feeling, but they surpassed any expectation I had in that regard, above and beyond. It’s sort of the benefit of coaching in a small town in that they play travel and pickup ball together, and really this team has done a good job of bonding and becoming closer. I think it shows on the court. They really are a close knit group.”
DMS players also realized the impact such an accomplishment could have on the community.
“We talk about it all the time that we’re representing more than just our team, we’re representing our school and our city,” Gage said. “That’s something we take really seriously and the boys are really proud to do this for the city of Dunn.”
Eight players from this year’s team are expected back for next season, creating already high expectations for what could go down as a legitimate dynasty in the annals of middle school basketball. One undefeated campaign is impressive, two in a row is legendary.
“I’m hoping, if we come in next year the way we did this year, we can come back and do it again,” said Gage. “I think they’ll come back hungry and ready to prove something. I think with these guys it’s as simple as they love basketball. That is their passion. If they stay hungry, we can keep positive things going.”
DMS forged a chapter in history Wednesday night, leaving behind a perfect season of basketball played the right way. The Greenwave plan to do it all again next year, giving Dunn residents one last chance to perhaps witness something they may never see again.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.