The Mountain Brook Spartans boys’ basketball team won its second consecutive Class 6A state championship Friday night.
It was a terrific accomplishment. The road to the back-to-back titles is a tale that the Spartan players will tell their grandchildren one day.
Mountain Brook’s championship run was many great things, but there’s one thing it wasn’t: a miracle.
During the Spartans’ current two-season reign as state champions, many in the media have been almost cliché in referring to it as some sort of freakish aberration of Alabama high school sports normalcy. Comparisons to the 1969 New York Mets or the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team are common. Spartan partisans couldn’t be blamed for having chips on their respective shoulders about their team and its achievements.
But the chips aren’t necessary. There was nothing about these titles that justified words such as freakish or lucky. Mountain Brook earned its championships the old fashioned way–by working harder and smarter than everyone else. The teams that do that always seem to get their share of good luck in the process.
After the Spartans’ 60-57 win over Blount in the Class 6A final on Friday night, Mountain Brook Coach Bucky McMillan seemed to immediately understand the magnitude of the hill his team had climbed.
“Let’s be real, everybody,” he said. “When teams repeat, they bring back their star players. We lost nine seniors from last year’s team. That’s nine seniors.”
True enough, but there was still plenty of talent returning and a strong junior varsity from which to draw replacements. Senior Patrick Keim, whose key three-point shot and free throws down the stretch ended any chance of a Blount comeback, was superb for Mountain Brook in both championship seasons.
“I’ve never seen a better leader in athletics than Patrick,” McMillan once said. “Everyone knows that he always has the team’s best interest at heart.”
Fellow seniors Ben Shearer, Will Brewster, Alex Peters, Spencer Einhorn and Matthew Weissman all contributed with leadership on and off the court. Shearer–despite a relatively quiet performance against Blount–was the Spartans’ most dangerous threat from the three-point line. Peters established himself as a standout post player, as evidenced by his seven blocked shots against the Leopards.
TaWarren Grant, a junior, was named Final Four MVP after scoring 22 points in the final game. Jack Kline earned a starting position at forward as a sophomore, and forward Will Hartley and guard Hunter Lucas earned significant playing time as juniors. Don’t expect Mountain Brook to fall back to the pack next season.
The Spartans didn’t catch any breaks in the post-season tournament brackets either. In the Northeast Regionals at Jacksonville State, Mountain Brook defeated sixth-ranked Robert E. Lee of Huntsville and 10th-ranked Grissom of Huntsville just to make it to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
Then the Spartans decisively overcame third-ranked Carver of Montgomery before edging fourth-ranked Blount in a fiercely-contested final.
“Those were the four toughest teams we played all season,” McMillan said. “We went through all four of those teams to win the championship.”
The coach could have added that those four wins were the last leg of a long parade of victories. Mountain Brook will open next season riding a 23-game winning streak.
How did Mountain Brook win 23 in a row on the inevitable nights when the shots weren’t falling and the rebounding wasn’t consistent? It played defense. Case in point: In the semifinal, Carver went on a 9-0 run early in the third quarter to take a six-point lead over the Spartans. The Wolverines managed only one field goal for the remainder of the contest and shot only 25 percent from the floor in the second half.
“We just kept playing our game–hustling, grinding and playing defense,” Keim said. “If we kept doing that, we knew we’d be okay.”
That statement may have summed up the philosophy of the 2013-14 Mountain Brook basketball team better than 100 newspaper articles.
When will it end? Many assume that a Mountain Brook three-peat is impossible. Prior to the season, of course, few if any observers beyond the walls of the school’s Bethune Drive campus would have predicted a two-peat. Grant, who also led Midfield to a Class 5A title in his freshman season, seemed ready for the 2014-15 championship chase to begin even as he celebrated the win over Blount.
“I don’t think of myself as a lucky charm,” he said. “We win because we work hard. This team was the hardest-working one I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do next year.”
Next year will come soon enough. For now, all of Mountain Brook can savor its team’s second consecutive basketball title. And know that there was nothing lucky about it.