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The parking lot quickly fills with cars and trucks. Fans stream into the school, past the trophy cases filled with mementos of previous conquests. The aroma of fresh-popped popcorn and steaming-hot hamburgers and hot dogs waft from the concession stand, calling to the mostly blue- and white-clad spectators who file into the brightly lit gymnasium and find their customary bleacher seats.
The opposing teams warm up, cheerleaders cheer, and strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" drift across the court. Then, as the players break their huddles and the announcer exhuberantly cries out their names, the fans stand as one and welcome their beloved Delta Bobcats.
All six of them.
Lately, the bench has been a lonely place for Delta boys basketball head coach Jimmy Johnson. Injury, illness and eligibility have robbed his team of talent, experience and, most critically, depth. Tuesday night, in a home game against Meadow Heights, Johnson had just one eligible substitute.
That was luxury. The three previous games, he had none.
"We've been playing with five players since the second game of the season," Johnson said. "It's a numbers game. It always is with a small school like this."
Enrollment at Delta, 15 minutes southwest of Cape Girardeau along Hwy. 77, stands at 93 in grades 9-12. Of those, 52 are boys; 32 are either juniors and seniors, and just 20 are freshmen or sophomores.
The numbers are low. Recent enrollments in Delta schools generally numbered between 140-150, and reached as high as 160 in years past.
But not this year.
"As long as we can put five kids out there, we're gonna be playing."
Meadow Heights hasn't played a game in 11 days, and the Panthers' rust shows. Delta jumps to a 10-5 lead after one period with senior guard Tanner Schabbing scoring seven of his team's points. The Bobcat fans applaud appreciatively.
Delta graduated three starters from last year's team that finished 13-11 and lost to Oak Ridge in a Class 1 District 2 semifinal. But with four seniors, all having played significant of minutes last season, the Bobcats planned on experience playing a big role in their success.
Quickly, that early season optimism began to unravel. Senior center David Brawley went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee with 30 seconds to play in a season-opening loss at East Prairie, robbing the Bobcats of their 6-foot-2 rebounding machine. Then, in quick succession, junior guard Trevor Glaus was sidelined with a respiratory infection, and senior guard Dillon Lincoln was declared academically ineligible.
Johnson has been doing his best to keep the team focused admidst all the turmoil. Practices consist of shooting skills, defensive drills and plenty of 3-on-2 work. Sometimes, the Bobcats scrimmage against the 8th-grade squad.
"It is what it is," Johnson said. "They come to practice every day, and they work hard to get better."
Delta's Dwight Nance gets free on a pretty inbounds play for an easy layup to put the Bobcats up 17-13 midway through the second quarter. But Meadow Heights closes the half with a flourish, trimming Delta's lead to 21-20 at intermission.
Brawley faced an unenviable choice: Undergo surgery on his torn ACL, or wrap it tightly and pray he doesn't hear a "pop" when he's on the court. Surgery would put an end to his senior season. The latter would mean a painful, pounding pressure on the knee and an increased chance of further damaging the joint.
Brawley didn't flinch.
He spent a couple weeks resting and recuperating while the swelling went down, and recently resumed practicing with the team. He saw his first action since his injury in last week's loss at Greenville, then played the entire game against Meadow Heights on Tuesday.
"It's my last year," he said. "Just give it all you've got, I guess."
Delta shows signs of tiring in the third quarter. Meadow Heights opens a 29-25 lead, but the Bobcats stubbornly battle back and trail by just one, 34-33, heading into the final period. But the pace is beginning to take its toll. Brawley is noticeably limping up and down the court. "You're doing great," Johnson says to his troops in the huddle before the final period begins. "Let's get a drink of water here."
The loss at Greenville was especially excruciating. Brawley's knee flared up and Johnson didn't want to risk further injury to his senior. Then Schabbing and freshman Austin White fouled out.
That left Nance and junior forward Alex Lashley the lone Bobcats on the court in the fourth quarter of a 41-34 loss. Nance admitted it was rather surreal.
"I'm thinking, 'I'm pretty sure we ain't gonna cut the deficit down no more,'" he laughed. "Just keep playing and don't turn it over every single time we get the ball. But I'm trying to wonder how we're gonna be able to stop them at all on defense since there's still five of them [Greenville players] out there."
Reality quickly sank in.
"We figured we'd foul out some and we'd be down to a few people at the end, but I didn't think it'd ever get down to two people at the end of the game," Schabbing said. "But things happen."
Even playing 2-on-5 for much of the quarter, Delta outscored Greenville 11-10 in the fourth period.
Midway through the fourth quarter Delta opens a 45-41 lead. But a bad pass after a rebound leads to a turnover and a Meadow Heights basket. Then a steal sets up a 3-pointer that gives the Panthers a 46-45 lead with 1 minute, 40 seconds left.
The Delta fans live and die with their basketball team. A town of just 429 people backs its Bobcats well, and one-half of the gymnasium is filled with loud, boistrous Bobcats backers. Like Amy White.
"I am so proud of those boys," White, the mother of freshman forward Austin White, said. "They are out there no matter what, and that's all that matters."
The team's work ethic isn't lost on its opposition, either.
"You've got to give them a lot of credit," Meadow Heights coach Glenn Eubanks said. "They should fold with just five guys. You've got to give Coach Johnson a lot of credit. They showed no signs of giving up out there, that's for sure."
Schabbing makes two free throws with 38.2 seconds left to give Delta a 49-48 lead. But Meadow Heights' Kyle Baremore hits a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Panthers up 51-49. Agonizingly, Delta turns the ball over on its next possession, then fouls with 4.8 seconds left. The Panthers miss the front end of the 1-and-1, and Nance grabs the rebound. He fires upcourt to a streaking Schabbing, who catches the ball just past midcourt, races in and scores the game-tying layup.
The lesson of this season isn't lost on Delta's non-seniors.
"I just want to get a couple wins so these guys get a couple wins their senior year," Glaus said.
White, the freshman, was more succinct.
"I just want to be out there with them," he said, noting he's gaining valuable varsity experience not normally afforded a freshman.
Lincoln can't wait to earn his way back onto the court.
"I just hope everybody doesn't give up by the time I come back," he said. "We're gonna get better."
Overtime is not kind to the Bobcats. A 5-0 Panthers run puts Delta in a 56-51 hole. Schabbing hits two free throws, but its not enough as the 58-53 loss drops the Bobcats to 0-6.
Johnson knows help is just around the corner. Glaus is recovering from his respiratory infection, Brawley plays on despite the pain in his knee, and the Bobcats will welcome two players next week -- junior Brandon Gaebler and senior Blake Perry -- who will join the team after completing their mandatory 14 practices. The goal is a fully functional nine-man roster when the annual 16-team Southeastern Missourian Christmas Tournament begins Dec. 26.
Lashley knows just what would make this a successful season for the Bobcats.
"Coming back and participating in the Christmas Tournament, and actually showing that we deserve to be there and showing that we're not a pushover team," he said.
"We have a job to do, and we just go out there and do it," Brawley said. "Whether we have four or five players, or three, or two, it doesn't matter."
The gym lies empty, the light dim. The Delta players slowly file out of their locker room and find friends and family waiting for them. There are pats on the back, and some quick hugs. Then it's off to home, and homework, and to bed.
Tomorrow will find them back at school, and back at practice. More shooting. More dribbling. More drills. They'll attack them like they do each of their opponents -- with tenacity and dogged determination.
All six of them.