PERHAM – As the regular season winds down to its final days, there is a sense of familiarity inside the Perham boys basketball team. The Yellowjackets know the drill: It's time to prepare well for what’s to come.
A year ago, the Yellowjackets were the team that everybody knew about because of Zach Gabbard. Gabbard, then a junior, collapsed with cardiac problems during a January game and nearly died. He was a source of inspiration as Perham went to the state tournament for the first time and brought home a Class 2A championship. Zach is now back in uniform, although a lack of strength means his playing time is limited.
Perham takes a 19-2 record into Tuesday night’s game at Pequot Lakes. A year ago at this time they were 19-1; last season they lost at Pelican Rapids in late January and didn’t lose again. This season they have split two games with Pelican Rapids and lost to Ellsworth in a holiday tournament.
The question, then: Can they do it again? Can they win another state championship?
Talking before a game last week, coach Dave Cresap rephrased the question. “Do we have the makings? Yeah, we can beat anybody. But a lot of teams can beat us, too.”
As last season ended and eyes began turning toward 2011-12, there was plenty of reason for optimism around town. Of the seven individuals who played in the state championship game against Rochester Lourdes, the only senior was guard Nick Topkin. But two hammers have dropped: Forward Sam Stratton, who was named to the all-tournament team at state as a junior last season, is now playing basketball at Fargo North after a family move, and junior guard Jordan Hein was lost for the season to an injury in December. Without those two, as well as Gabbard, the Yellowjackets know the road can be rocky. But here they are at 19-2. So far, so good.
“We were thinking, ‘We’re going to have to have some kids step up,’ ” Cresap said. “To be where we’re at right now, the one word I use to describe these kids is I’m proud. I’m proud of what they’ve done. They’ve bought into our system, they’re reaching out to get to their goals, and all their goals are still within reach.
“Goal number one is to win the (Heart O’Lakes) conference championship, and that’s still in reach. The goal to get to the section championship game? Still in reach. The goal of staying together as a team and not falling apart? They have done a wonderful job with that.”
The story of the 2010-11 Yellowjackets is one of the most memorable in history. It was a storybook tale that has been made into a documentary film, “For Three” (Gabbard, in center of photo at left, wears jersey number 3). Lessons learned then are paying off now.
“I think the main thing we learned is that the first thing you have to do is always believe in yourself and never give up,” said senior captain Jordan Bruhn. “You’re not going to do certain things in life without the help of others, and we became a really close family last year. I think that was the most important thing that we did to win state.”
The other captains, Mark Schumacher and coach’s son Jordan Cresap, echoed that feeling of togetherness.
“That cohesiveness we built last year really helped, and that adversity we faced last year has really helped us,” Schumacher said.
“We really became close last year after Zach collapsed and I think that’s a testament to our team and how well we work together, both on and off the court,” Cresap said.
Of course, the Yellowjackets are fully aware that life -- and basketball – can be full of surprises. The loss of Gabbard – as well as his return -- is Exhibit No. 1 in that category, and Perham’s run to last year’s title may be Exhibit No. 2. All this means that the team knows to expect the unexpected, be prepared for anything and play every game like it’s their last.
“The kids have to live in the moment,” Cresap said. “They’ve got to play for that present moment.”
Bruhn said, “Once playoffs start we’re going to have to look at each other and say, ‘This could be it. This could the last time we ever play together.’ It’s going to be scary and sad.”
Gabbard has gone from being a starter before his ailment to a bench player now. He says his strength is 80 percent back to normal; Dave Cresap puts that figure closer to 65 percent. But Zach is back in uniform, back with his teammates, and that’s what matters.
“Basketball was my life and still is,” he said. “Just being back on the court, warming up with the team, it means a lot.”
One of the surprises of Gabbard’s return to health was the return of his voice. When he left a Twin Cities rehabilitation hospital and rejoined his team at last year’s state tournament, he could speak in little more than a whisper and his voice remained raspy through the summer and into the new school year. But while cheering at a volleyball match last fall, his voice returned in full force.
“I started yelling and then boom, my voice was back,” said Zach, who is thinking of attending Minnesota State-Moorhead and majoring in elementary education. “It was so weird. No one had heard my voice for a while.”
Zach inspires his teammates, and his mere presence is a reminder of what’s truly important.
“You think, ‘What if it had happened to me?,” Schumacher said. “ ‘Would I be able to come back and do all this?’ None of us wanted it to happen but it happened and all of us cope with it the best we can. We know how lucky we are to still have him here and we’re able to talk to him and go to class with him. You don’t take it for granted when you see him.”
So Zach is back, the season is nearing the final stretch and the Yellowjackets are preparing for a journey that will hopefully end with another trip to state.
“Like we say to the players, we’re not going to surprise anyone this time of the year,” Dave Cresap said. “We need to pay attention to the details, do the little things, defend and rebound.”
The only certainty is that the end will come … maybe early in the section playoffs, maybe in the section final, maybe at the state tournament, maybe with the Yellowjackets holding another championship trophy. When that time comes, Cresap knows what he hopes to see.
“At some point it’s going to end and they have to enjoy every moment of this and cherish what they’ve had," he said. "Hopefully they can walk away from the program thinking, ‘We had fun, we played smart, we played together and we did all those little things that are necessary to have a good season.’ ”
BY THE NUMBERS
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