By Clay Coleman
CLOPTON—There is a church in Soissons, France, the Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais. Its recessed transepts surrounding the nave, gives off a white and black appearance as you stand there staring at its walls. Anyone familiar with Soissons will know that was the town to where Saint Crispin fled from the Romans. Crispin, the patron saint of cobblers, was made famous by William Shakespeare in his play “Henry V.” The English king, calling out to his men before battling the French on the fields of Agincourt. He reminds them why they fight on Saint Crispin’s Day.
“From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Standing in Clopton’s gym Saturday night, its chalk-white walls lined with black and white gym mats, sends me back to that church in France, as I await the start of the Class 2 District 5 basketball championship between the Van-Far Indians and the Clopton Hawks in their own battle of Saint Clopton’s Court.
Coming off a week of player injuries, Van-Far’s coach, Pat Connaway, was worried heading into Saturday night’s game. The fight in Paris a week earlier had been tougher than what he expected. Losing star player, Verdell Johnson, to a wrist injury early in the first quarter, Connaway’s only hopes then were with Colin Wilburn, and Sam Middleton, doing what they always do—putting points on the scoreboard, while Rylee Hanson and Morgan Slatten stepped up for their fallen teammate and knocked out a couple of three-pointers to keep Connaway’s team ahead by three at the finish.
The fight with Clopton was going to be harder, though. Connaway knew it was going to get physical, and with Johnson down with a hairline fracture of the wrist, Van-Far had every right to worry.
But Van-Far wasn’t the only team with injuries. Clopton’s star player, Zakk Eivins, was hurt the week before in a game against Bowling Green, and he wasn’t coming back. Senior Maleek McPike, also injured in that game with Bowling Green, begged Clopton’s coach Tony Francis to let him play in the championship game against Van-Far, and Francis agreed to it.
What could he do? He had the home-court advantage, they were coming to his court, but this was Van-Far, and like Connaway, Francis, too, was worried as the boys entered the nave to start the game.
…And the longbowmen reached down, nocked their arrows, and let fly at the charging knights…
As the ball snapped into the air, the battle at Saint Clopton’s court began. Like the French knights charging the fields at Agincourt, Clopton charged at Van-Far early in the first period, but Wilburn upset their gait with a three-pointer, giving Van-Far the early lead. Clopton was quick to answer on the return, with Kennon Watts making the layup for two. Back and forth, the teams charged at each other. Johnson, playing with a wrapped wrist and oblivious to the pain, was in his usual form, putting points on the board in the first, but by the end of the period, Jared Hoehn slipped in a three-pointer, giving Clopton the lead by one, 9-8.
During the second period, the game suddenly took an ominous turn for both teams. Clopton’s McPike, suffering from the injury he received at Bowling Green, grimaced in pain as he walked back to the sidelines, his game suddenly over. He fought hard, landing 3 points for Clopton, before falling into the arms of his coach and teammates. Van-Far’s Wilburn, one of the pillars in coach Connaway’s strategy, suffered an ankle injury early in the period, and writhing on the floor in pain, was led back to the sidelines by Connaway and assistant coach Brett Reading. But his injury didn’t slow down Van-Far’s attack plan. Hanson, sealing a three-pointer, and Johnson continuing to work through the pain, increased their lead by 5, going into the half with the score 21-16.
…and as they charged the fields of Agincourt, the knights in their plate armor wallowed in the mud and flowers, and were set upon…
At the beginning of the third period, with an injured Wilburn back on the court, and Clopton losing both starters, Connaway put his team on the attack. Keeping Clopton at bay with intense defensive work by LaTrell Wright and Aidan Lowrance, Connaway turned to Sam Middleton. Middleton is Van-Far’s secret weapon, and not many people know that. Always going for three-pointers, Connaway wanted Clopton continually looking up, even if Middleton only sinks them half the time. Like arrows raining down from above, Clopton backs up and waits when Middleton reaches half court. But this time, Middleton dropped two, increasing Van-Far’s lead at the end of the third by 11, putting the score at 31-20.
…watching his enemies struggle up to their waists in mud, Henry orders the English to charge, and they meet on hallowed ground…
By the beginning of the fourth period, Clopton knew they were past the point of no return. Not giving up without a fight, Francis told his team to keep their heads up and fight to the finish, and battle to the finish they did. Without a doubt it was the best period of the game. Clopton added 16 points to Van-Far’s 17. It was a slugfest. It was street ball. Playing through the sweat, grime, and pain, Clopton and Van-Far met in the middle and battled it out until the last seconds of the game. In the melee, filled with fouls, pain from hurt limbs, and eyes peering through sweat waiting for the game’s final seconds, Hanson makes six out of six free throws to hand Van-Far it’s third district championship in a row.
…and with his great victory settled, Henry and his band of brothers sail for home.
Now that the fight with Clopton is over, Connaway and his team prepare for the next one against Milan on Wednesday night. But the Battle at Saint Clopton’s court will always live on in their memories, and the minds of everyone who witnessed it.
And when time has past, and the memories of what happened fades, those men, those band of brothers, will tell all those who will listen, that the Battle of Saint Clopton’s Court wasn’t won in a gym that reminds this writer about a French nave, but was instead won by a group of kids playing basketball at the South School. It was strategized on the fields at the First Christian Church court, or hinted at through the rearview mirror, as you watch them, feet dangling and barely reaching the floorboards, on the way to a Youth League game at the YMCA.