by Todd Thomas, Staff Writer
Uplift Community High School had a breakout year on the basketball court. The Titans brought notoriety and respect to the little-known Uptown school of just 350 students by compiling a 25 to 5 win/loss record, winning the Chicago Public League Red-North Conference, making it to the elite-eight of the CPL playoffs and playing into the third-round of the 3A State Playoffs.
The only thing to mar the dream season of 2013-2014 was a scheduling oversight that almost cost them a state playoff berth. But before that, Uplift was tearing up the CPL with a 12-game winning streak to start the season.
“We were feeling pretty good during the winning streak,” said junior forward Jamaya Wyatt. “From the beginning of the season we wanted to make a name for ourselves because no one knew us — we just went out and played hard every day.”
Titan head coach David Taylor entered his seventh season at Uplift feeling good about his team’s chance to have a good season as well.
“They are talented,” Taylor said. “I’ve had talented players in the past, but not a whole group as talented as this group. … And they had excellent team chemistry. Team chemistry is a rare thing, but when you have it it’s something special, and I think this season was just that — special.”
The Titans hit a rough patch at the midway point of the season and lost two consecutive games. They didn’t hit the panic button but played through it and got back on the right track by winning 10 of their final 12 games.
“It felt good to win so many games at the start of the season, but some people on the team got big-headed, and that’s where the losses came in,” said senior guard Quintin Olagbegi. “But coach made us work and woke us up, and we went on another run.”
“People stopped playing their roles, but coach Taylor got us back on track,” added junior guard Jeremy Roscoe.
Uplift closed out the regular season and won its first three games of the city playoffs, reaching the elite-eight and earning a matchup with Orr, a top-ranked west side school with a long history as a basketball powerhouse. The Titans were underdogs, but the status didn’t have them on their heels.
“I could care less about what people think,” Roscoe said. “I just go out and play with a chip on my shoulder every game.”
“We’ve got something to prove because this is a new school and it’s small and people don’t know about us,” Wyatt said. “When we play well against schools like Orr we can make a name for ourselves.”
Uplift was very competitive against Orr but lost 77 to 63. Next up would be the IHSA State playoffs — or so they thought.
Prior to the beginning of the state playoffs Uplift, Hyde Park Academy and Bogan were all banned from state playoff completion by the IHSA. Bogan and Hyde Park had broken an IHSA rule by playing in too many non-conference games, and Uplift had played in four regular season tournaments, when only three are allowed.
Coach Taylor admits to the scheduling error and took responsibility for the rule infraction.
“Rules are rules, and I believe in them, and I want my players to believe in rules,” he said. “But I did think the penalty was a little stiff, and there was some head-scratching.”
The players were devastated by the playoff ban and spent a week in limbo as Taylor and Uplift principal Stephanie Moore appealed the IHSA decision.
“It was a shock,” Roscoe said. “It was like somebody was taking the game that I love away from me. We were waiting the whole season for the state playoffs — that’s what it’s all about.”
“We worked so hard and accomplished so much during the regular season — then we can’t even get a chance to attempt to win a state championship,” added Wyatt.
After a week of waiting, the IHSA governing body reversed its decision and reinstated all three teams to the state playoffs. The Titans give a lot of the credit to their school principal for fighting for them.
The principal fought hard for our school, and showed she really wants us to do well,” Wyatt said.
“She showed me that she cared when she fought for us to get back in the state playoffs,” echoed Roscoe.
But the reinstatement was not without conditions, and although the team could play, coach Taylor was still banned for the duration of the playoffs – leaving the leadership role to the assistant coach Antwione Allen.
“It felt good to get back on the court, but we had to do it without our head coach, so it really didn’t feel right,” Roscoe said.
“They were reinstated, but I was not,” Taylor said of the IHSA ruling. “It was a bittersweet thing, but I was happy for the team.”
The Titans won their first two games of the State Playoffs but said the competition in those contests wasn’t top-notch. The real test came against Carmel in the sectional semifinal final, but they fell 55 to 46.
“We had his (coach Taylor) guidance since we stepped into the school. It was strange going into the biggest event of the season without him – it was just weird,” Wyatt said.
“We were lost out there against Carmel with him,” added Roscoe.
The controversy during the State Playoffs was a hard pill to swallow, and the impact it had on the Titan’s season was undeniable, but the team still felt good about the campaign, even if it wasn’t a storybook ending.
“The season was a success,” said Roscoe. “It was the first time Uplift won the Red-North championship, we were Mundelein Thanksgiving Tournament champions, and we were in the top 25 in the state.”
But Olagbegi said they could have accomplished more.
“It was successful, but I wasn’t satisfied. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do – we wanted more.”
The season may have ended with a somewhat empty feeling for the Titans, but the effect the winning program had on the entire school was substantial.
“Inside the building the reception for us was great, (and) the students were excited about the team. We had a very warm reception from staff and from students – the building was a more lively place,” Taylor said.