By Richard Taylor
Both Ocracoke boys’ and girls’ middle-school basketball teams captured Tideland Middle School Athletic Conference Tournament Championships at Mattamuskeet Feb. 3, the boys for the second-straight year.
Despite getting off to a slow start, Ocracoke’s Lady Dolphins beat the Hatteras Hurricanes 37-30. After an equally slow start, the Dolphin boys easily ousted the Mattamuskeet Lakers, 44-29.
Each finished their hurricane-shortened season undefeated, despite playing all games away, since Dorian had ruined the school gym Sept. 6.
Anticipation and nervous excitement filled the air as the white Hyde Co. athletic bus and a dozen parent and fan vehicles boarded the 10:30 Hatteras ferry earlier that day, for the nearly five-hour trip to Mattamuskeet Early College High School on U.S. 264, five miles east of Swan Quarter.
Postmaster Celeste Brooks and John Kattenburg were among many parents and fans who have attended all nine off-island games this season. Nearly 50 Dolphins supporters filled the stands, arriving on the Hyde County mainland by both the Hatteras and Swan Quarter ferries.
Jason Wells, head coach for both squads, credited talent, teamwork and tenacious defense as factors leading both his Dolphin teams to amass perfect 9-0 records, even without home games.
“I’m exhausted, but it was worth it,” he said while trying to keep his excited players quiet on the return ferry trip to South Dock. “Coaching both teams and having all away games this season was very hard, especially with the ferry situation. By the time we get home, it’s a 13-hour trip.
“It’s always like this when we get on the ferry,” Wells said, trying to keep his teams quiet. ”We stopped at Food Lion (in Avon) and all the kids got as much junk food as they could. The adults are over it, but the kids are jacked-up on sugar.”
That’s how it’s been all year long.
“I knew we had good teams this year, but I wasn’t expecting for us to go undefeated,” Wells continued. “That was an added bonus.
“It’s been a great season, a lot of hard work, a lot of long days,” he reflected. “Practicing in the gym– sometimes it was too cold. Sometimes it was too wet and slippery, so you couldn’t play ‘cause you were falling down.”
And coaching two teams, he could only practice with one team at a time.
“So it just cut way down on the amount of time we had to practice and play,” he reflected. “And then, I had never coached the girls before, so we were starting from scratch, as for the way I like to run my basketball program. Even for the eighth-graders, we didn’t run anything like the girls did last year.”
Wells, who also has spearheaded the free Ocracoke Strong Kitchen since Hurricane Dorian hit, said it’s not just about scoring.
“You’ve got to set screens, get rebounds and play good defense,” he said. “I try to teach them to play defense so the other team can’t drive by you. We were struggling on defense today, but luckily we pulled it out.”
Both Dolphin teams started slow in the tournament finals, with lots of turnovers and missed shots. In the first game, the girls finally settled down for a 37-30 win over the Hatteras Hurricanes.
As they have all season, two scrappy eight-graders scored most Lady Dolphin points. Maren Donlon had 22 before fouling out. Alyssa Bryan netted 13, while Emily Jordon had 4.
Leading scorer Donlon said the girls’ victory was a team effort. “From the beginning of the season compared to the end of the season, we grew a lot,” she reflected during the bus ride home. “We definitely wouldn’t have won it if we all hadn’t come together at the end to beat Hatteras.”
Donlon said that leaving the game in the last period “was disappointing, because it was my last middle school game, but I’m really glad we won, despite me fouling out.”
Even though jitters may have caused the Lady Dolphins to get off to a slow start, second leading scorer Alyssa Bryan felt good really about this year, “because we just started supporting each other and telling each other that it doesn’t really matter about the mistakes at this point.”
Even though his star eighth-graders Donlon and Bryan will move up to the varsity next year, Wells expects to have much of this year’s championship team returning. “It’s been a great season, he said. “I’m glad it’s over, but I definitely can’t coach both teams next year.”
The Dolphin boys also soon settled down to play their deliberate style of defensive ball, as preached by Wells, before easily claiming the championship over Mattamuskeet.
“For the boys, most of our scoring and rebounding is coming back, so next year we’re going to be just as nasty,” Wells said, announcing next year will be his last year of coaching.
Wells also praised his assistant coaches, Daniel Ibarra for the boys and Salomon Vergara-Cobos for the girls.
Both Bryan and Donlon plan to play varsity ball next season. “We’ve got a good starting base,” said Bryan. Wells said team awards will be given out later this spring.
Varsity teams will play in the Atlantic 6 Conference tournament next week. Frank Moore’s boys remain winless, while Samantha Hodson’s girls have won one game.
Brooks was beaming after the games. “Ocracoke rocks,” she said. “They played outstanding games tonight; they had great defense and great offense. They just dominated. Hard work made the difference, as well as wanting to succeed.”
Brooks’ grandson Quinten stands out on the Dolphins team with his distinctive pink sneakers. “He and Landon (Fuller) both like to demonstrate their individuality,” she said. “We have a bunch of good kids on this island and they love this sport.”
Fuller scored 23 for the Dolphins, including three 3-pointers. Jacob Daniels had 17.
Hyde County Deputy Sheriff Captain Jason Daniel came to see his son Jacob, one of the Dolphins leading scorers. “I think they all played good; they played their ball,” he said. “They’ve had some adversity this year, but these kids work hard. They come out to play and they’ve done good [sic].” Daniels also praised Wells’ coaching.
Dolphin Noah O’Neal’s father, Vince, said his old friend Bill Ambrose “came all the way from Chesapeake to see these boys play.”
“They played hard and they played well,” O’Neal added. “Who thought we’d even be playing [in this championship] at all. Jason’s put a lot of time into this. He’s very dedicated; has been for years. So is Daniel.”
All 12 Lady Dolphins and 15 Ocracoke boys played.
“I think it’s phenomenal what both Ocracoke middle school teams have been able to do, in spite of having to play every game on the road this year,” Hyde County School Superintendent Steve Basnight said on Wednesday. “It really speaks to the level of student athletes that we have here.”
He also praised the Mattamuskeet Lakers.
“There were two Hyde County teams that played each other in that championship (boys) game,” he said. “That speaks a lot for Hyde County Schools.”