If there is a story that encompasses the unique qualities of the Briarwood Christian School boys basketball team this season, it comes from the Bryant Bank Thanksgiving Classic at Hewitt-Trussville High School.
The tournament was held in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, about two weeks after the season began for most teams. Briarwood showed up with a mark of 0-0, having yet to play in a regular season contest.
Head coach Bobby Kerley already had been forced to postpone multiple games leading up to the event, due to the fact the Lions’ football team was in the midst of a deep playoff run. Six key contributors to the varsity basketball team were also key football players, so there was no way Kerley could field a team on the hardwood yet.
But he was not going to cancel on Hewitt-Trussville at the last minute. The Lions showed up to the tournament with a roster comprised of players from the varsity, junior varsity and freshmen. Along with six varsity players, a handful of junior varsity players also played football, so Kerley brought five freshmen to suit up with the team.
“Our first game, we played Cornerstone, and coach (Ronald) Steele does a great job with them and their (defensive) pressure,” Kerley said.
Because of that, Kerley was none too eager to throw any of his freshmen into the fire in that situation. But his hand was forced. Kerley was forced to substitute one of them into the contest.
“He got big-eyed, and said, ‘You really want me to go in?’” Kerley recalled. “I told him he had to. He went out there and played as hard as he could, probably scared to death.”
The Lions went on to win the game against Cornerstone but dropped the next two to Hewitt-Trussville and Oak Mountain, teams that were simply further along than Briarwood at that point of the season.
“They did great,” Kerley said. “I was walking away from there thinking our future’s bright. The people that know what’s going on think we’re going to be a pretty good ball club this year.”
Kerley said the younger players would greatly benefit from the experience of seeing the intensity of varsity basketball, along with being coached as if they were on the varsity team.
Despite not being able to dress his full roster, most of the Briarwood basketball team was represented at the season-opening tournament, in the form of support.
“It was neat having the football players come see the guys that usually don’t get the majority of the minutes play as hard as they possibly could,” Kerley said. “These football guys are watching them and being inspired.”
Even during the football team’s run through the playoffs, the multisport athletes still came to basketball practice.
“I’ll ask them to come for at least 30 minutes of practice. They don’t play, but just to be there. It’s important for the guys that are in basketball to see those football guys and to realize this is a part of us, too,” Kerley said.
Kerley said he was really pleased with the reintegration of the football players into the basketball team once Briarwood’s season ended in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
“The football guys come in, and it can be a tough thing,” Kerley said, “when you’ve been getting major minutes and other guys come back. It’s been a testament to the character of the kids that are basketball-only guys to just embrace these guys coming in and getting major minutes.”
There is one major catch to this whole process: Kerley is also an assistant coach on the football team.
That’s a heavy workload.
“I realized that the opportunities that the Lord gives you are never going to be greater than you’re capable of handling,” Kerley said, now in his 17th year at Briarwood and third as the head basketball coach.
Kerley also emphasized the importance of time management in juggling both sports, and his assistant basketball coaches, Jeremy Mears and Jeff Robertson, for making things run as efficiently as possible.
As far as on the on-court product, Kerley said he is excited, especially about his defense.
“We have a unit this year that we can change defenses constantly,” he said. “That’s rare that you have a group that can change on the fly like that. Right now, it’s an offensive issue because we’re so rusty. We execute really well, and we get the shots that we want; we just can’t make them right now. I’m OK with that.”
His key for ensuring that his team is a factor heading into the final month of the season boils down to two words: patience and trust.
“We’re doing the right things; we’ve got to trust that,” Kerley said. “Now let’s just be patient with each other and get a little better every day. If we do that, we should be tough come end of January and beginning of February.”