Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
From left, Decatur Heritage's Michael Brown, coach Tommy Kyle and De'El Watkins in Kyle's office with some souvenirs of their trip to the Dominican Republic.
on a mission
Decatur Heritage basketball team grows closer with off-the-court deeds
By Brooke Milam
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2462
The farthest the Decatur Heritage boys basketball team will travel for a game this season was a 41-mile trip to Tharptown in Franklin County on Dec. 5.
But the Eagles have covered hundreds more miles together, accomplishing much more as a group than winning basketball games.
Coach Tommy Kyle took his team on a trip to the Dominican Republic in July through SCORE International, a church-affiliated sports missions ministry of which Kyle is the vice president.
In addition to that trip, the team had the bonding experience of a road trip to Columbia, S.C., to watch the Gamecocks play Kansas on Jan. 7.
"It's been a great springboard for this year and all the troubles we've faced," Kyle said. " ... It's not all about winning a basketball game."
Decatur Heritage hasn't played with its entire squad at full speed all season.
Senior Drew Holmes suffered a knee ligament tear requiring surgery.
Junior guard Bo Godwin has dealt with a high ankle sprain, junior Zach Woodruff has worked around severe asthma, and sophomore De'El Watkins has been limited by nagging muscle pains.
"It's hodgepodge basketball sometimes, but the neat thing is we've still been competitive, and we've still been winning," Kyle said.
"The team concept of realizing it's the little things in life that you can't take for granted — it's been reflected in what we do in basketball. You've got to do the little things right."
Decatur Heritage is 14-9 with only two Class 1A, Area 15 losses, both to Hazlewood, and is ranked No. 9 in the state.
They're back to the comfortable life they enjoy in the United States, but just a few months ago, Eagles team members were playing with children at an orphanage in the Dominican. While there, they helped paint a youth camp, assisted missionary Jay Munoz and worked with a church.
Kyle plans on taking his team on the same trip again in the summer.
"You go down there expecting to help them, but they end up helping you out to be grateful for what you have," Watkins said.
Basketball played a part in the trip as well. The Eagles played an exhibition game against a club team there. Watkins said he and his teammates might have underestimated the competition.
"We got killed," Watkins said. "They had some huge guys."
To say the Eagles' presence was welcome in the Dominican Republic would be an understatement. Players said locals were excited about their visit. They said some of the children constructed cardboard video cameras and did imitation impromptu interviews.
Kyle has taken Division I basketball players on similar trips the past four summers, but this was the first time he has had the experience with his Eagles.
For Decatur Heritage's team, it was the first time many of the 11 players who made the trip had been out of the country, and for several it was the first time in an airplane.
"It was the first time the team has done something like that, and I'm glad my team was the first here to be a part of that," senior Michael Brown said.
Brown is one of four seniors, including Holmes, Luke Adams and Daniel Long, who were able to have the experience in their final year of high school basketball.
And Brown said getting to know his teammates out of the school environment is something that has made a difference on the court this season.
"It's helped us grow together, of course," Brown said. "(Coach Kyle) just tells us to play through and give 100 percent."
After a trip that taught so many life lessons last summer, Kyle packed up the entire team and headed to South Carolina to watch a game two weeks ago.
Unlike the trip to the Dominican Republic, the heaviest issue the Eagles dealt with on the South Carolina trip was a snowball fight that they said got pretty fierce.
Decatur Heritage players also got to shoot around at Colonial Center and met South Carolina coach Dave Odom as well as some Gamecock players.
The Eagles hope it won't be the last trip they take together. They'd like to hit the road for Hanceville and the Northwest Regionals in February, and a trip to Birmingham for the Final Four in March would be nice, too.
For now, they are happy with the memories they have of the season so far, but as Watkins put it, "You don't ever relax with Coach Kyle. You always keep working hard."
"I'm a firm believer in the sowing and reaping principal," Kyle said. "Every night out every one has a chance and the teams that I've had here that have been successful in the past haven't always been the ones with the most athletes — it was the ones that became a team. The greatest thing I can say about this group of kids is that they've become a team."
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