Permanent potential: English High drops heartbreakers to Madison Park and New Mission

English High basketball coach Barry Robinson speaks to his team during a timeout of a tough loss to Madison Park last Tuesday night. Photo by Patrick O'Connor.

The following is the fifth in a series of blog posts about English High’s basketball team and the school’s efforts to hold their athletes to higher academic standards. The posts are a follow up to the Boston Globe Magazine story I wrote about the school increasing its eligibility threshold for athletes to a district-high 2.5 GPA.

By Justin A. Rice

Friday was not only English High’s matchup against the defending MIAA Division 2 state champs, New Mission, it was also the deadline for all makeup work in senior guard Marquis Lewis’ English Language Arts class — exactly one week before the marking period ends this Friday.

“I got them all in,” Lewis, who has the lowest GPA on the team, said of his 24 outstanding English assignments. “I had to spend some long nights up but I got them all in. … [My teacher] didn’t think I was gonna do it.”

Lewis, who was academically ineligible last year, knows just merely turning in his makeup assignments doesn’t guarantee him a passing grade in English. And then there are the poor grades in his other classes, not to mention a slew of unexcused absences.

“It’s all about quality,” he said after last Friday’s 78-67 loss to New Mission, the 12th ranked team in the Boston Globe’s Top 20. “I tried to explain every answer thoroughly, double check and went over every answer I needed to.”

Lewis’ potential for failing off the team felt all the more real after he scored a game-high and career-high 18-points in a 64-57 win against a much bigger West Roxbury team on Jan. 13. Trailing 36-32 at halftime, English got within one point, 47-46, of Westie after senior small forward Kwame Townsend banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter. Lewis got the assist the big shot after grabbing an offensive rebound that clanked off the front of the rim.

“It was just crazy it was just a loose ball, I saw Marquis fumbled it and he gave it to me so in my head I was like ‘I have to make this to get our team back,’” Townsend said afterwards. “So when I shot it, it just felt good; the release of it, oh my God.”

Then with 5:22 left in the final quarter Lewis hit his own 3-pointer to give English its first lead of the game, 52-49. The Blue & Blue opened up a 9-point lead before blowing it. They ultimately hung on for the 7-point win by hitting 6-of-10 free throws in the final stretch, including a pair by senior forward Wiley Shipman and a pair by Townsend with 32 seconds left to go up 62-57.

The win improved English to 5-3 overall and put them in third place in their league.

“I want to say that for some of us, mainly me, it was the first time that I’ve ever been in a situation like this,” Lewis told his teammates in the locker room after the game, “and I don’t know some of you guys the same so I just wanted to say now that we’ve been in this situation, let’s do nothing but get better from it.”

Up to that point in his basketball career, Lewis had always been the second or third offensive option on any team he’s played on and now it seemed he was finally coming into his own as a scorer. I was becoming more apparent that while English has other offensive threats, the team needs Lewis to step offensively in order for them to win.  Despite his 5-foot-6-inche frame, Lewis has long arms and a sweepingly fluid motion when he uses them to finger role the ball into the basket.  He’s also the closest thing to a natural shooting touch on the team.

“It makes me feel like I can play with anybody, it makes me feel like any shot I’m going to take it’s going to go in,” he said of his breakout performance before professing that he wouldn’t let his academic eligibility come down to the final few weeks of the semester again. “I’m going to try to stay on top of it. I can’t keep doing this. I’m getting gray hairs trying to keep up with it.”

Lewis said it’s not that he can’t do the work, it’s just that he isn’t organized enough to stay on top of his assignments. And it’s not that he doesn’t pay attention in class or that he fails to pick up on the concepts being taught by teachers.

In fact, Lewis is a sponge in the classroom, when he’s there, that is.“If he applied himself he’d do wonders because when he’s here and he does what he’s supposed to do he’s an active member of the class,” said Lewis’ English teacher KethlynVilbrun, noting that he has about 10 unexcused absences. “He’s bright.”

Four days after the West Roxbury win, Lewis was sitting in his financial planning class that he is currently failing when his teacher distributed a week’s worth of stock charts clipped from a newspaper to go with a worksheet.  Toward the end of class the teacher asked the students which company on the chart would make the most money?

“Sprint loses $17 a share,” one student said.

“No they don’t, they gain,” Lewis chimed in before correctly explaining why Sprint made the most money and was worth $12.17 a share.

That focus, however, didn’t spill over to the Madison Park game that night.  Just before the game Lewis got into an argument with his girlfriend, who he was living with, and it didn’t help his mindset that he was already on the outs with his mother. He only ended up scoring two points in the 79-77 heart-wrenching loss to No. 13th-ranked Madison Park, a road game in which English trailed 43-29 at halftime.

Lewis fouled out of the game with 4:46 to play. The ensuing foul shots gave Madison Park a 68-64 lead. But English went on a 6-0 run, which was capped by Townsend’s 3-pointer that gave English its first lead of the game, 70-68, with two minutes to go in the game.

The Cardinals tied the game up at 70 before English ripped off four straight points. Shipman (game-high 28 points) scored an uncontested layup that came after he stole the ball in transition near half court with 1:14 left.

The teams traded buckets at the free throw line (where English finished the game 20 of 30) before Madison’s Rayshaw Matthews tied the game at 77 with 14 seconds left. Then Joy O’Shea stole the ball from English captain Tyrone Williams and scored the go-ahead hoop with 2.8 seconds left. English clanked a desperation 3-pointer off the front of the rim and Madison escaped with the win.

After the game English’s coach, Barry Robinson, told his team they had to leave their personal problems behind when they stepped onto the court—but clearly he was calling out Lewis.

“When I cross this line for 32 minutes I’m going to leave it behind because it can’t bother me,” Coach Rob said in the locker room after the game. “I am safe! I am straight up safe! Once I cross that line and I am here with my coaches and my teammates I am safe and I’m going to ball up like I’m supposed to! But you can’t bring it with you and that’s what’s killing us right now.

“Whether it’s personal problems, whether its self-inflicted injuries, whatever it is we are bringing it into the sphere. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. You got to realize what you’re doing here. You’ve got to realize how great you can be and forget about how great you can’t be.  We were down by [16] and we came back and we took the lead. If that doesn’t show you how great you are I don’t know what to tell you.”

Lewis was determined not to let that happen against New Mission on Friday night. He patched things up on the home front, turned in his makeup English work and came into the game much more focused.

This time English only trailed, 39-33, at the half.

In the third quarter, English quickly tied the game and then took its first lead of the game 39-38 on a Tyrone Williams free throw. Then junior center Frantz Francois deflected a pass that Lewis picked up, dribbled to the elbow and pulled up for a jumper that gave English a 3-point edge with 3:47 left in the quarter.

In the final moments of the quarter Lewis made a nice fake move to the left and drove to the hoop but missed the layup. New Mission rebounded the ball under the basket but Lewis quickly stole the ball from behind and found Shipman open under the hoop for a buzzer-beating layup to trail 50-47 going into the final quarter.

In the first play of the fourth quarter, Lewis missed another shot but this time scooped up his own rebound and put it back to cut the lead to one.

New Mission responded with a dunk. And starting at the 6:07 mark, the Titans took a 9-2 run that put them up 10 points with just under five to play. English cut the lead to six points on two occasions but never got closer and lost 78-67 to fall to a 3-3 record in league play.

“I’m sick of being the team with permanent potential,” Lewis, who scored nine points, told his teammates after the game. “I think it’s time that we individually and collectively take that next step. We could be great. I don’t want to be good I want to be great, this is my last year and it’s finally time for us to pull together.”

But first Lewis, who said he moved back home with his mother and grandparents, has exactly one school week to pull off a 2.5 GPA.

“This week it’s not going to be as tough,” Lewis said of the amount of makeup work he has to do. “I’m staying with teachers after school, doing what I need to do to get the extra credit I need for my grades to go up. This weekend however is going to be tough ‘cause I got some math I need to make up; six assignments.

“Before I felt like I had nobody in my corner,” he continued. “Now I feel like me and my mom bonded and I can look over my shoulder knowing she is there.”

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