La Center basketball team unifies community

Players give extra effort to honor student's tragic death

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LA CENTER — Five wins. Five losses. A .500 winning percentage.

On paper, La Center Middle School’s eighth grade boys basketball team defined average this season. In reality, they’re anything but.

The boys’ courage in the aftermath of teammate and friend Cody Sherrell’s death from sudden cardiac arrest provided strength for their classmates and teachers, solace for the community and a source of comfort for Cody’s family, school officials said. Wins and losses don’t tell the whole story.

“There was amazing pressure on these kids to be that inspiration,” Principal David Cooke said, while seated inside a conference room in the middle school’s main office. “They were not only playing for Cody but playing for a grieving school and a grieving community. (The basketball team) was one

thing people could rally behind.”

The team rallied behind Cody’s memory, three of its players said Wednesday.

“Cody was our first priority,” Dalton Morgan, 14, recalled.

Cody died Jan. 9, six days after collapsing at the end of the team’s first practice of the season. He was 14.

Ten days after Cody’s death, hundreds of students, school faculty, parents and community residents packed La Center Middle’s gym for the team’s season opener against Hockinson Middle School. Many in the crowd wore black hooded sweatshirts or T-shirts bearing Cody’s name and number (24). The proceeds went to Cody’s family to offset hospital bills.

During a somber pre-game ceremony, Brandon Sherrell told the crowd his son had achieved his dream the day he collapsed. On a wall behind him, a sign declared the hardwood he stood on as “Cody’s Court.” The Sherrell family did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

La Center defeated Hockinson, 70-54, on opening night, equaling its 2011 win total.

The team’s goal remained the same in each of its games — win for Cody. Pre-game cheers before home games reminded them to “protect Cody’s house.”

“Definitely every game we wanted to win for Cody, to show he was still in our thoughts,” Dalton said. The lanky eighth grader noted he gave 120 percent each game — his normal 110 percent plus 10 percent for Cody.

“It was almost like you could look to the bench and know he was there,” Jake Kyser, 14, added. Jake and Dalton each wore sweatshirts honoring Cody the day of the interview.

Win or lose, the team’s effort never waned, first-year head coach Tom Rice said. Rice and Dalton’s father, Greg Morgan, performed CPR on Cody in the gym until paramedics arrived.

“I found out how resilient they were,” the coach said, when asked what he learned about his team this season. “At times, they handled it better than the adults did.”

That’s not to say it was easy for the players.

“It was tough, because I was used to seeing him smiling (in the hall),” Dalton said. “He brightened up my day.”

While shy, Cody had started to become more active at school. Hence, his participation in basketball tryouts. He also shined in math class and had earned Student of the Month honors in October, Cooke noted.

Cody’s influence this winter stretched beyond the court, his teammates agreed.

Teens who once thought they were invincible realized they weren’t. The number of petty arguments at school declined, Cooke noted.

“It was a big reality check,” Kellan Sullivan, 14, said of the sudden, unexpected nature of his teammate’s death. Sullivan wore a bracelet with Cody’s name bracketed by hearts.

Two months after Cody’s death, school officials are considering ways of honoring him in the future. Nothing has been decided, they said. It is still too soon.

A support club remains available for students dealing with grief.

“Everything’s getting back to normal, but there’s still an empty place,” Kellan said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend; www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com.