Scoggins: State tourney-bound player named Poet knows the right word — loyalty

Poet Davis will hear his name called Wednesday afternoon during introductions at the boys basketball state tournament and a sense of satisfaction will wash over the Minneapolis South senior guard. That moment will be a basketball version of poetic justice.

Two years ago, Davis was the only regular contributor on South's varsity team to stay with the team. Eight players transferred to new schools, including four starters.

The Tigers should have been loaded last season, one of the most talented teams in the state. Instead, they were decimated. South coach Joe Hyser worried whether he'd have enough players to forge on.

The kid named Poet stayed because he wanted to improve and become a leader. He believed in himself, his coach, his team.

"He helped keep my spirits up by saying, 'Coach, we're going to get this,'" Hyser said.

South won six games after the exodus. Final record: 6-20.

"It was scary," Davis said. "I was telling myself that maybe I wasn't ready for it."

A year later, the Tigers are 21-5 and in the state tournament for the first time in 32 years.

Davis was ready for it, after all.

"With everybody leaving," he said, "nobody thought we would ever get there."

Hyser calls it a "super cool story," and not in a vindictive tone. He still has a good relationship with the players who left, calling them "great kids that have great parents." A few of them are playing in this state tournament with their new teams.

Hyser said last season was one of his most enjoyable in 28 years as South's head coach, despite only six victories. Davis had worked the halls at school recruiting players to join the team. A few kids who had stopped playing because the roster was full of star talent returned for a fresh opportunity.

Hyser loved teaching the game to new players. Davis was thrust into the point guard role and took his lumps.

"I was making a lot of mistakes, shooting a lot of dumb shots, not running the team well," he said. "That's probably one reason why we only won six games. I grew from that."

The Tigers benefited from a transfer with the arrival of point guard Jumarion Weh from Minneapolis Edison this season, which allowed Davis to move back to his natural position. Improvement was noticeable throughout the roster. A 79-76 win at Minneapolis North in early January was a defining moment in signaling that something special was possible.

"That's the hardest thing to do is to change somebody's belief about themselves," Hyser said. "How can we expect kids to become leaders if you don't give them opportunities to lead?"

That leadership got tested in a major way after 6-8 senior Romero Walker suffered a broken leg in a game against St. Paul Harding in February. Walker was their best post player. Players were devastated for Walker and wondering whether their promising season would be derailed.

The team visited Walker in the hospital and he put their minds at ease with his positive outlook. The Tigers adjusted their style of play, especially on defense, and kept charging ahead to their first state tournament appearance in three decades.

"Everybody coming together and having one goal," Davis said. "Putting all personal needs aside and everybody understanding their roles."

The Tigers are a tenacious group. Davis describes their style of play as "scrappy, quick, fast."

Their coach calls them "extremely emotional."

"But that is their greatest strength, too," Hyser said. "Because when they turn that thing on competitively, it's really something else to see."

The Tigers intend to turn that faucet on against third-seeded Alexandria in the quarterfinal at Williams Arena. The team that won only six games last season is one of eight remaining teams in Class 3A.

"Nah, I wouldn't have believed that," Davis said with a chuckle when asked whether he envisioned this scenario at this time last year.

And yet here he is. The young man who stayed because he wanted to become a better basketball player and better leader has found a sweet reward.

"Even if I was to go somewhere else and win," he said, "it wouldn't feel as good as doing it here with my guys."

Beautiful words from Poet.