You want to know the true, amazing beauty of high school sports?
One normal January Tuesday morning, Luke Denbow wakes up and goes to school as just another solid senior basketball player for the ultra-talented Nixa Eagles this season. Then, over a span of 1.8 seconds that evening, Denbow and teammate Austin Ruder go down in Nixa history as the two Eagles involved in “The Play.” An event that neither will ever forget—nor will a Nixa gym-full of students and parents who saw it happen live. We are talking, of course, about Denbow’s length-of-the-floor baseball pass to a streaking-down-the-sidelines Ruder for a game-winning layup at the buzzer and an 84-82 Nixa win over rival Kickapoo in mid-January.
Short of hearing your numbers called in a mega-millions Powerball drawing, where else outside of sports can you experience such a life-altering event in a matter of seconds…at least, for the better?
Think about it…
Thirty years from now, Denbow and Ruder will still be remembered as the guys who completed “The Play” to beat Kickapoo. Heck, Nixa school officials may bring them both back for Homecoming 2061 to recreate the pass and shot that, quite honestly, is as spectacular of a game-winning play as any we’ve seen in 30 years of living in the Ozarks.
That’s a memory that will never be taken away from them. One for their kids, their grandkids, and their grandkids’ grandkids to tell forever.
Those things don’t just go away, either. Just ask Maggie Arnall.
It was the 2007 Missouri Class 2 state basketball championship game when Arnall sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer—as a Hartville freshman—to lead the Lady Eagles to a 49-48 win over Westran for the title.
Arnall’s only regret?
“I wish it would have happened when I was senior,” she told me last fall with a laugh, adding that she still fields questions about “The Shot” to this day.
I was trying to think back to others who might still be known for one tremendous heave or launch as the signature, defining moment of their Ozarks’ basketball careers.
The one that popped up almost instantly was a nearly three-quarters court launch by Alton senior standout Andy Benson at the buzzer to beat Brent Blevins and Forsyth in the Class 2A state quarterfinals at a jam-packed Kickapoo High School gym, one that propelled the Comets on to a second-place finish at State.
Benson is now 39-years-old and a medical equipment sales rep living in Siloam Springs, Ark., where he played for John Brown University after his Alton prep miracle. Twenty years later, do people still remember “The Shot?”
“Absolutely,” Benson said with a laugh. “Every time I go home to Alton, it never ceases to amaze me how often people will bring it up. I’ve got a son now (12-year-old Avery) who’s super into basketball, and he’s even gone back and had fun watching it. Of course, we had to convert the VHS to DVD. I don’t know if he gets a bigger kick out of the shot itself or how short our shorts were back then.”
Of course, the only one more thrilled by the shot than Andy was his father and then-Alton head coach, Randy Benson. “I’d always dreamed of hitting that big shot to win a game as a player myself,” Randy said, “but that night, I got to do it through Andy.”
And some folks just had a knack for finding those moments.
Former Parkview High School star and Drury All-American Matt Miller says, “I always believed when you got to that point of the game, it became an easier time to score because the defense was always very nervous. I always felt like at that point, it was going in.”
You think players ever forget those game-winning moments?
Miller, the all-time leading scorer in Springfield Public Schools history with more than 1,700 points during his career with the Vikings in the mid-1990s, can still tell you today about the circumstances surrounding the game-winner he hit as a PHS freshman to beat Hazelwood Central.
Of course, they all don’t end in storybook fashion.
For every made game-winner, there’s at least as many that don’t go in before the final buzzer. There are blown assignments defensively that haunt those who let the opposition’s moment of glory happen.
And there are, well, lots of “almost” moments.
Current Greenwood High School boys’ basketball coach Darren Taylor continues to live one of those. Taylor was a senior standout for Willow Springs High School when—30 years ago this season—the Bears were facing North Pemiscot County in the Class 2A state championship game in Columbia. Down by two points with just six seconds left, the Bears worked the ball down court into Taylor’s hands, where he dropped in a basket from close range at the buzzer to apparently force overtime.
Until an official waved it off.
Even though the official was the only one in the building who saw it that way, as game film clearly indicated Taylor’s shot was well out of his hands before the horn sounded.
Nevertheless, game over. Dream squashed.
And a lifetime remaining for Willow Springs fans—and Taylor—to wonder what might have happened if not for one infamous Don Denkinger-like moment a few years before even Don Denkinger made his infamous Cards-Royals 1985 World Series blown call.
“Everybody in the gym knew it was good…their team, our team…everybody but the official who called it,” Taylor recalls with a chuckle. “I’ll tell you what’s kind of funny about it. Obviously you don’t sit around and think about it or anything, but still today, if you’re ever around any of those guys on the team, it’ll come up quite often.
“Of course, everybody now says ‘If you could have just been a little faster…and I did take one dribble, so who knows, maybe it was my fault,” Taylor added with a laugh. “You talk about a distraught bunch of boys. You think all the times you play around as a kid, you count down ’10, 9, 8…’ and shoot the shot in your driveway to win a state championship. So darned if you don’t get there, you hit the shot and it doesn’t count.”
Lesson to be learned from all of this for today’s athletes?
Every time you step on that field or court, you’re always just one play away from a YouTube moment.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.