Though the game was technically a scrimmage — outside the calendar of regular league play — and won't count toward Crittenden's total win count this season, the victory was a big deal for the middle school squad. The team's fans said they would be holding their heads a little higher at school, knowing they walked away from the court triumphant.
A group of young seventh-graders, Jamal Khidir, Michael Durana and Marlon Arce, all yell, "Airball!" in unison from their perch in the stands as a Bears player misses a shot. They each said they enjoy coming to the basketball games after school and that they were pumped to see their Panthers go head-to-head with the Bears.
"We're rivals," Durana said, offering an explanation.
Rachel Klemm, another seventh-grader agreed. "It's exciting to play a rival because it's more competitive," she said. "You play better."
While the two schools are only a few miles apart and in the same school district, the Crittenden and Graham middle school basketball teams belong to different leagues. According to Crittenden Principal Geoffrey Chang, his school's squad was dropped into a lower-level league between seven and eight years ago and hasn't had the opportunity to play Graham since.
Co-athletic director Marco Arce sought to fix that this year. Working with Graham athletics officials, Arce scheduled the scrimmage to take place after the end of Crittenden's season and before the beginning of Graham's.
As it turns out, Crittenden entered the scrimmage having won every game in their league, including the championship. The Panthers kept that streak alive, winning by just one point in overtime.
The victory may have been due in part to the team's level of enthusiasm for playing the Bears. At halftime, with the score tied 17-17, Panther's coach, Shamir Simmons, said that his team had been more excited about the scrimmage than they had been even for the championship game.
"It's a very special game for these guys," Simmons said, noting that many of the players are friends with their opponents. They have attended elementary school together, they go to the same church, they see each other on the weekends around town. Plus, he noted, the winner of the game would have "bragging rights."
Although his son's team did not walk away with those bragging rights, Craig Diggle, the father of a Graham player, said the scrimmage was a great way to bring the community closer.
"It's what you call a cross-town rivalry," Diggle said. "You play a little harder as a kid. Your fans are cheering very loud. We should do it more often."