DENHAM SPRINGS – Last season’s Denham Springs basketball team didn’t win a parish championship, District 4-5A title or make a deep postseason run.
But it still managed to endear itself to coach Kevin Caballero for a triumph that superseded any that occurred on the court.
“It’s probably the most memorable team I’ll have because of the circumstance those kids faced,” Caballero said.
Rising from the depths of despair
With the great majority of a team that suffered through a flood-ravaged 10-23 season in 2016 – one devoid of postseason competition – the Yellow Jackets were a shining example of the ability of the human spirit to persevere over adversity.
That was the 2017-18 Denham Springs team in a nutshell, with its core group of players still intact after its nightmarish season the previous year, thriving under a sense of normalcy that included a return to their lives at home, at school and on the floor.
“For me personally it was my first losing season in seven years and we didn’t make the playoffs,” Caballero said. “I don’t think we knew what to expect this past season. We didn’t have any outstanding first team all-district guys. But we had some toughness, some resiliency that when things got bad, we just pulled on the rope together.”
Getting pointed in the right direction
Returning players such as guards Micah Banks, Kaleb Drummer, DJ Williams and post player Xavier Miles, like Caballero, suffered differing degrees of damage to their homes and upheaval in their personal lives two years ago at the hands of the Great Flood.
Having endured through the tumult of the previous season Denham Springs started the 2017-18 season fast with nine wins in its first 10 games, displaying a dramatic turnaround in games decided by 10 points or less with a 12-3 record.
After a near miss (56-55 loss) on Jan. 8 against eventual Class 5A state champion and parish rival Walker, the Yellow Jackets defeated Covington (75-64) in the opening round of the state playoffs.
That set up a lengthy road trip to top-seeded Natchitoches Central, which in its last two games against Denham Springs, had defeated the Yellow Jackets by 32 and 30 points, respectively.
Denham Springs pushed the home-standing team to the wire, eventually dropping a 75-64 decision in a game that went a long way cementing the Jackets’ road back to respectability – a 23-10 record – as well as setting a tone for the 2018-19 season.
“That game meant a lot to us and gave us experience for this upcoming year,” said Banks, who has received college interest from South Dakota State and Delta State. “I had never played in an environment like that before. We weren’t used to that. It was a great experience and it showed that went you buy in as a team, good things can happen.”
Plenty of angst created by upheaval
Banks credited Caballero with a masterful job of keeping a splintered basketball team together through very trying times the year before.
If not for that leadership exhibited by Caballero, Banks shutters to think where the program would have been going into last season as the Yellow Jackets’ fortunes appeared uncertain.
“When we got back for our first practice, coach kept our minds strong and not to use it (flood) as an excuse,” Banks said. “We stayed strong. We got through it, but it was tough.”
The Great Flood of 2016 had such an impact.
Banks said his family’s first thoughts were to remain at home after an initial rainfall had receded from his yard and beyond the street.
The next wave of heavy rains, though, changed those plans and with Banks’ father driving a Tahoe, got his family out ahead of rising water that would eventually push more than 3 ½ feet into their home.
Banks said they encountered traffic snarls and rising water on I-12, forcing his father to drive on the outside of the right lane en route to Plaquemine, where they were forced to stay with family for two months.
“We were scared. We decided to leave, and it was the perfect time because by the time we go to the interstate, it was halfway flooded,” Banks said. “If we would have waited any longer we probably would have been stuck in Denham.”
Caballero recalled equating the scene of pelting rains and flooding to something you would have seen on television.
But he soon realized his own home, much like of Denham Springs, was under siege and required swift action as Caballero and his wife were evacuated to Walker and then to another location later that same evening.
He counted his mother, sister, two brothers and aunt among flood victims who sought shelter from their flood-damage homes.
“When we moved, we looked in the Baton Rouge and Central area,” Caballero said. “But we wanted to live in Livingston and built about a 1 ½ miles from the school. We had three feet of water and we hadn’t been in the house a year.”
Comparatively speaking the recovery process for Banks’ family moved along rather rapidly, resulting in a move-in less than three months after the flood.
“It was messed up, the floor was warped,” Banks said. “Everything was slimy. You could see the water mark on the front door when you first got to the house. We had to get rid of our cabinets, flooring, bed and furniture. The washer and dryer were messed up. We also lost a lot of clothes, shoes and cars.”
Said Caballero: “All of a sudden, basketball took a backseat for everybody involved.”
Basketball provides an outlet
Because of damage to their campus, students from Denham Springs were out of class for a month and when they returned to school, they did so in shifts at Live Oak High.
Once the basketball team reconvened, they practiced until 8 p.m. before those affected headed home to help with recovery efforts.
“They were getting home at 9 p.m., working on houses until 11 and going to school at noon,” said Caballero, who returned to his home the week of Thanksgiving.
Ironically, after all adverse effects of unsettled households and attending school into the early evening, hitting the basketball floor for a two-hour practice proved therapeutic for a weary group of basketball players.
It was the only time of day where their problems were overshadowed by the dribble of a basketball, squeaking of shoes and piercing noise of Caballero’s whistle.
In short, it was an escape that enabled the Yellow Jackets to bond.
“We looked to basketball as a way not to think about it,” Banks said of the flood. “You could go out and play and forget about the problems going on at home. We didn’t have to think about rebuilding our homes. We could go out and play the game until it was over and go back to reality.”
Difficult conclusion strengthens bond
DSHS began the ’16-17 season with five losses in its first six games.
The mental capacity the Jackets showed in closing out tight contest this past season was missing two years ago in games that were decided by 10 points or less.
They were 4-9 in those games, a trend that didn’t get any better during a 10-game stretch in District 4-5A play where DSHS went 3-7 overall, losing six of their last seven games and finishing out of contention for postseason play.
“It really made us realize we had each other’s back,” Banks said of the lessons learned from that season. “It showed us this year, that if anything would go wrong, we could get over it. If we can survive the flood and come back to normal, then nothing could stand in our way.”