There is a bitter-sweetness that waits at the end of every sports season, because once the finish line is reached, there is inevitably something lost forever. A relationship among a group -- a unique bond that forms over time at practice and on bus rides.
The more successful the team, the longer the season lasts, the higher the heights achieved. So even for those teams that finish on top and grab whatever gold ring they are pursuing, reality blends with euphoria and spits out that bitter-sweetness.
All of the above can describe a group of individuals who have merely spent several months working toward a collective goal.
Then there are the Walker boys, 2017-18 state championship version.
A memorable season wound down earlier this month, the final chapter of a wonderful story reached the best of all crescendos when the Wildcats climbed the Class 5A mountaintop and claimed the first state championship in program history.
Walker scaled a series of long-standing barriers to get to the state tournament and then crashed on through the ceiling by routing Natchitoches Central 89-63 in the semifinals and adding the final marvelous act with a come-from-behind 62-57 overtime win over Landry-Walker.
That assured that a dream that a core group of seven seniors and a coaching staff with strong Walker ties worked on for an awful long time came to fruition.
This was a crowning achievement a long time in the making, which means the Wildcats will savor it a little more than most teams might. The camaraderie that created such a strong bound among these players and friends for life will make the conclusion happy, sad, emotional and memorable forever.
It began to sink in almost immediately when Jalen Cook mentioned to longtime Walker coach that the climb to the top also marked an emotional transition.
“His words were ‘I’m not going to play with my brother anymore,’” Schiro said.
Cook’s older brother Josh Cook is one of the seven seniors who played their final game in the state title contest. “I said ‘Yeah, it’s a bittersweet moment, but right now, we’re going to enjoy the sweet.’
“I know I’m going to miss these guys.”
A basketball season and basketball careers may have wound down, but that won’t diminish what has grown along the way.
“The relationship we all have together, it means a lot,” said Darius Hampton, one of the players who has been the foundation of the Walker boys from Day 1. “We all hang out with each other all the time. We’re always together. Everybody is always with somebody. It’s a true brotherhood.”
True. Because ears spent bonding and growing and caring does that.
Most of the seven Wildcat seniors who suited up for their final two games together in Lake Charles have played together as a group since they were 6-7 years old. That was when Eric Cook and Louis Moore decided to put together a group of players for a Biddy Ball team with their sons – Josh and Jalen Cook and Dalton Moore – and Hampton as three of the cornerstones with current juniors Trent Montgomery and Calvin Watson also part of the squad.
Gradually, Jalen Perkins joined in, and Quaeshon Clark and Le Davis jumped on board soon after.
From that crew, a team was born, a bright future was hatched and the bonds of lifelong friendship took hold. Championships followed: 9 years ago, most of the players who made up the 2017-18 Wildcats’ varsity finished as the Biddy Ball national runnerup, losing the championship game by a point.
Dominance followed as the Walker boys made their way through grade school and junior high, and one interested observer with the same kind of tight connection to the city took note.
Schiro accepted the tall task of resurrecting the Wildcats’ tradition in the summer of 2008 after three successful seasons at Albany. He hadn’t strayed too far from his hometown, but his focus was understandably on the Hornets as he launched a coaching career.
Pretty quickly after Schiro returned to his alma mater, though, he started to hear about this current group.
“I don’t remember if it was immediately that first year I was back here, but there was no doubt you knew who they were coming up through elementary school,” Schiro said. “There was always a lot of talk about them, with the success they had in Biddy Basketball and winning a lot of games at the national level, so their names kept coming up. And the thing was, they were all from Walker. That main core group was all from Walker. You start recognizing these guys, and obviously by the time they got to the 5th and 6th grades, they were playing at the junior high. So we’ve known these guys for a long time.”
Didn’t hurt that Eric Cook, Louis Moore and more recently Brian Thomas Sr. had sons connected to the Walker program. All three were big-time high school players in their own rights in the 1980s and early 1990s – stars that Schiro remembered coming to Glenn Ellis Gym to watch as he was blossoming into a prep standout.
As an up-and-comer, Schiro said he and his friends emulated those players’ games, especially Cook.
“I knew the name and I knew he was a good player,” Schiro said with a smile. “That was the guy you remembered. So when he started coaching his sons, you sort of figured they were going to be good athletes.”
Schiro was right, but it was more than just athletic young players. There were also ironclad bonds of friendship among the kids, as well as their parents.
Cook is fond of quickly pointing out that “Walker folks look out for each other,” and that rings especially true for the current Wildcat crew. Many of them grew up close enough to each other to spend time together even when it wasn’t basketball season.
The result created over years is a team where players can regularly finish each other’s sentences off the court and possess an innate understanding and familiarity when they step on the floor.
“We all know each other’s games so well,” Dalton Moore said. He was the first of four Wildcats who have surpassed 1,000 points scored in their careers during the season. Hampton reached that plateau while he was piling up a season-best 21 points vs. Natchitoches Central.
“We know each other’s tendencies. Even just playing pickup with each other as long as we have, we know what each other likes to do and how to get everybody involved.”
Added Hampton, “We all know what each other can do, and we give each other tips and stuff on how to get better. It makes us really good, especially knowing each other so well and that’s important with Coach putting such a big emphasis on communication.”
From those years together and that special understanding of who can do what and when, something else emerged.
“There’s a trust factor among these guys that is a big reason why they are so special together,” Schiro said.
“They really trust that the next guy is going to make the play if they don’t. It’s not ‘I have to go out and do it myself’ because they all know they can make this extra pass and rely on their teammates.
"There’s not a guy out there that they don’t have faith in to make a play. Because of that, we move the ball well, we cut well, defensively we play hard because they are playing for each other and not just themselves. Half the time when we trap, I haven’t even called a trap. They just go do it because they trust each other. You can’t replace that on the court.
“What also makes these guys unique is that they are definitely friends and have been from the time they were little. You see them on campus and they’re always with each other. After the games, they are talking about where they’re going, what they’re going to do. They hang out with each other, and it’s just clear that they have each other’s backs on and off the court. That’s a special thing to have. You don’t always get that with teams with so many really good players. This team has that.”
The close-knit Wildcats came into this season with a lofty shared purpose.
They latched onto a goal that started to grow and flourish as they dominated at every level and added key cogs along the way like Jalen Cook as a freshman last year and Brian Thomas as a freshman this season.
Those two are considered to be among the best players in Louisiana in their respective classes and were major contributors in helping Walker reach new heights. Cook led Walker with 18 points a game and Thomas was at his best when the stage has been the biggest, including the championship game when he came up huge in crunch time and was voted the game MVP.
Although younger than the main nucleus, those two have always been a part of the story, especially Cook.
Hampton recalled a junior-high game when the current seniors were 8th-graders and Cook, a 6th-grader, pumped in a step-back 3-pointer to help them win another championship.
“That was the moment when we all knew he was going to be a big part of whatever we did,” Hampton said.
Schiro knew as well and made sure Cook and then Thomas were blended in to become part of the framework that has materialized the last three seasons, culminating with the state championship.
When the current seniors were freshmen, they played together for the most part against a freshman schedule and eventually at the junior varsity level. As sophomores they became the core of a 22-win team that ended a five-year postseason drought and landed the program’s first home playoff game since 2001.
Last season the Wildcats won a playoff game for the first time since 2000 and the state title on March 10 came after Walker advanced to the program’s first berth in the semifinals at any level since 1962 and only the fourth time in school history.
The three-year ledger is impressive: 79 victories, a 19-7 record in District 4-5A and three straight Livingston Parish Tournament championships. The Wildcats’ final 33-4 record matches the 1976-77 team’s program-best mark for single-season wins.
“There was a plan in place the whole time,” Schiro said. “We brought them along and let them all play together as freshman and together on the JV, and as the season went on they started getting more and more playing time on the varsity. That was the plan from the start. We knew by their sophomore year that they were going to be the varsity team.
"I’d say that the plan has worked out pretty well.”
That was the coaches’ plan. The players were working on their own plan all along. Hampton said he remembers talks with his teammates when they were young about playing for a state championship when they got to Walker.
A common sentiment echoed by several players after an 84-59 victory over Southwood on March 2 got the Wildcats over the hump and to the State Tournament was the motivation to achieve that goal for their city.
There is absolutely no doubt how strong the connection is between this group of players and the Walker community that has helped raise them.
“This group has been together since we were 5 or 6,” Dalton Moore said. “They’re my brothers. Ever since I can remember I’ve been playing with them. We’ve done almost everything we’ve talked about doing for a long time.”
Fittingly, the Walker boys finished what they started.
Regardless of that final result, the ride that the Wildcats were on all season, and really for the last 11-12 years, created a lifetime of memories.
“I can’t express enough how special this group of seniors has been, how much we’re going to miss them, and how different and weird it is going to be come springtime and summer when they aren’t in Walker jerseys anymore,” Schiro said. “They’ve been the group for so long, so it’s just going to be a different feeling. I've been here for 10 years, and they have been a part of it for almost half my time. I’m proud of these guys and everything they’ve accomplished.
"I hope all of them are successful moving forward because they’re such good kids with good character, and you just hope they are successful moving forward. This has been such a special group for so long. I’m so proud of them and happy for our community and our fans. This group is such a brotherhood, and they’re going to have a lot of special memories.”
Randy Rosetta is the Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News & Managing Editor of 4-5ALockerRoom.com
To reach him, call (225) 999.0667 or email Randy@LPN1989.com.
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta