Over the past four years Bell City senior A.J. Henry has been able to witness first-hand the growth of a basketball powerhouse.
Henry has been a part of two state championship teams and has seen the Cubs win three consecutive district titles. Unfortunately, for the talented 6-foot-1 forward, much of that time has been spent on the bench recovering from various injuries.
"That's the thing about him, if people ever get to see him at 100 percent he would be in the same category with Eric Henry and C.J. Hadley," Bell City coach David Heeb said, recalling two former Cub stars.
After three years of working back from an assorted list of injuries, Henry's final season looked to be in serious jeopardy when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a type of cancer, around the time of the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament. Miraculously, Henry has missed little time while receiving chemotherapy treatments every Monday. In Henry's case, the cancer was found early and he is expected to make a full recovery.
Henry said hearing he had Hodgkin's was definitely scary initially, but once he found out more about it his mind returned to the court.
"I said all right, when can I play," Henry said. "That's the first thing I asked them."
Henry's ability to come back on the court sometimes only a day after receiving the treatment, and perform well when able to play, is something that has not been lost on his teammates.
"I know he's gone through a lot; it's painful for him," teammate Jeff Liggins said. "But to see him out there, it makes me want to go even harder."
Fellow teammate Blaine Stewart echoed Liggins' sentiment: "You see him on the sideline sucking oxygen in a game -- if he can do that I can put forth a little more."
During the first three years of his high school career Henry suffered through several knee problems, including a torn ACL that cost him all of his freshman season. As a sophomore, he had a bone break in his foot that occurred twice in the same place.
A torn meniscus cost Henry much of his junior season, though he was able to come back in time to help the Cubs win the state championship. It might lead a person to believe they're cursed.
"Sometimes I kind of feel like that, but I guess that's the way things happen," Henry said. "It makes me stronger."
Through all of his injuries Henry has managed to make an impact on the court and maintain a positive attitude, which has rubbed off on his teammates.
"He's always talking on the floor," Stewart said. "Any time you're around A.J., if you do something wrong, he's there to pick you up. He's just there for everybody."
Added Heeb: "He inspires the kids. It's not about A.J. wanting to play; it's about A.J. wanting to win and helping the kids to win."
Henry's positive attitude was again tested late this season when he suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee.
"When I hurt my knee this time I thought, 'I'm done,'" Henry said. "But if I can come back from all this other stuff, I can come back from one more knee injury."
As the lone senior on a young squad which has started three freshmen at times, Henry's presence on the court is important. Henry helps bridge the gap between the state champion teams the Cubs have had over the past three years and the young group trying to get back to that point.
"He's our link to the good teams we've had," Heeb said. "He's the teacher a lot of times in how we're supposed to practice. He sets the example."
While Henry's scoring has dropped this season due to his health problems, he managed to score 14 points against Puxico in the Stoddard County tournament on Jan. 29.
It is unlikely Henry will be able to make much of an impact for the Cubs in the first two rounds of the Class 1 District 2 tournament due to his treatments, but should the top-seeded Cubs advance, Henry should be ready to go for the championship on Thursday and a possible sectional game March 8.
Heeb said when healthy, Henry can make a big impact on the team.
"When we've got him on the floor we're a different team," he said.
The Cubs will be sporting shaved heads and headbands at the district tournament in support of Henry, an idea which Liggins initiated before Bell City played Kelly on Feb. 18.
"I was real proud of them doing that for A.J.," Heeb said.
Bell City (16-9) is led offensively by Liggins and freshman D.D. Gillespie.
The Cubs face No. 8 Zalma at 4 p.m. today in the opening round. Delta has the second seed.
"We feel like we've been knocked down a few times this year, but we're still standing here and until someone beats us we're still the state champs," Heeb said. "Everyone out there has to come through the BC."
For Henry, a state championship would be the perfect ending to a difficult career.
"It'd mean the world for me right now," he said. "We put in a lot of hard work at Bell City. You don't want to waste that hard work you've put in all year."
Scott County Central looks for second straight title
Scott County Central recently retired a gym which played home to some of the top teams in Missouri's small-school history.
The Braves will try to make a run at adding a banner for their new gym when they start district play on Tuesday. Scott County Central won its first district title since 1995 last year, and the Braves now look to make a run at their first state final four since 1994.
Scott County, seeded first, will play the winner of the Delta C-7/Southland quarterfinal in a Tuesday semifinal. Clarkton, the district host, is seeded second.
The Bravettes do not have an opponent in Class 1 District 1 this season and will automatically move on to the sectional game Tuesday at Sikeston. Scott County will face the winner of the Class 1 District 2 championship between Delta and Oran.
St. Vincent tries to continue winning ways
Playing with a roster chalked full of names from St. Vincent's Class 1 football champions, the Indians enter the Class 2 District 3 tournament at the Perry Park Center with the top seed.
St. Vincent enters with a 17-6 record, helped in large part by a nine-game winning streak that led to a 9-1 record in January. The Indians are riding a six-game winning streak. Valle Catholic will be St. Vincent's first opponent when the Indians open district play on Tuesday.