For the St. James Coastal Crew Rebels 11th-grade Elite team, the Amateur Athletic Union National Tournament would mark the end of their AAU careers.
The players already had been through a lot. A month ago, the entire Rebels organization was rocked by the murder of its coach, mentor and founder, Ernie Walthour. Walthour, 46, was shot and killed in Midway, reportedly during an attempted armed robbery.
With heavy hearts, the Elite team traveled to Kissimmee, Fla., last week, guided by the coach Walthour had groomed to run the team, David Linderman.
“Everything this weekend was kind of bittersweet because he wasn’t there,” Linderman said. “But we felt he was with us the whole time.”
The players finished fourth in the classic division, brought back an extra medal and placed it at Walthour’s gravesite.
“Before we left, we decided that if we won anything we were going to make sure we brought something back for Ernie,” Linderman said. “When they started handing us our medals, we told them we needed one more. The AAU director, he had already heard the news about Ernie and was good friends with Ernie as well, so he was devastated … they gave us an extra wristband and medal for him. So when we came back home ... we stopped and placed the medal at his grave … the players told me, because this was their last AAU trip … they told me, ‘From now on, whenever I win something, always get one extra to bring back for Ernie.’”
Linderman said the players had to battle back from losing the first three games, two of which went to overtime. He said he still sought guidance and, somehow, knew Walthour was listening.
“Even though he wasn’t there, I could still hear him … little things in the game … like when we were coming back from being down … he would always say, ‘David, call a time out,’ and in my head I would hear him and I would go ahead and call for one,” Linderman said. “We lost the first game by 12 to the team that ended up placing third in the big bracket, and the other games went to overtime and we lost by buzzer-beaters … then, in the fourth game, everything started clicking for us.”
Linderman said the players played their hearts out, but lost in the final-four game of the classic division. “Even in the last few games, where it would come down to the last few minutes, they would huddle and say let’s do this for Ernie,” Linderman said. “Jamorris Hill really stepped up his game … he was all over the place … he was, like, willing everyone to win … he was giving it everything he had. Our kids didn’t quit.”
Linderman said the community pulled together to make the trip to nationals possible for the Elite squad. He said Walthour’s estate was tied up in court, as is customary after a death, and with Summer Slam canceled, the parents of the players gathered up funds. He added that coach Mike Brown and Jay Osteen also offered generous donations.
Walthour’s longtime friend, Linda Schumm, made the trip to help the team, along with coach Reginald Castille. Linderman said coach Simon Steele has provided guidance to him and the team, and coach Antonique Mathis helped him organize the players and parents.
Linderman said making sure the players finished their season and had a chance to be recruited to play at the college level is what Walthour would have wanted and something the organization vows to carry on. But the loss of Walthour still is fresh and sometimes hard to believe.
“Even when we go to the gym (St. James Sports Center), it’s like we are just waiting for him to come in the door … we all look at the door when it opens,” Linderman said.
Ohio Teamwork 63, Rebels 51
Rebels scorers: Herbert Roberts 14, Miguel Pineda 13, Freddie McSwain 12, Ahman Muhammad 7
Nike Team Florida Black 73, Rebels 72 (OT)
Rebels scorers: Pineda 20, Roberts 16, McSwain and Jamorris Hill 10 each
S.C. Columbus Hoyas 85, Rebels 81 (OT)
Rebels scorers: Roberts 28, McSwain 21, Pineda 14
Rebels 81, L.A. Team Shockaz 69
Rebels scorers: Roberts 22, McSwain 20, Muhammad 14, Pineda 10
Rebels 59, Florida South Bruins 57 (OT)
Rebels scorers: Roberts 28, Pineda 9
Rebels 59, N.C. Warriors 58
Rebels scorers: Roberts 25, McSwain 16
Rebels 67, Florida S. Elite Polk 50
Rebels scorers: Roberts 24, Pineda 18, McSwain 11
Florida Nike Team 73, Rebels 72 (OT)
Rebels scorers: Roberts 20, Pineda and McSwain 12 each
North Carolina WCBA 68, Rebels 65
Rebels scorers: Hill and McSwain 18 each, Roberts 15