After McKinley’s Marquel Lewis hit the game-winning shot in a 53-51 victory over Spingarn last week, the seniors’ only bucket of the game, he knew he had earned it. A year ago, McKinley Coach Ali Foster told Lewis he was too raw and too inexperienced to play varsity. Lewis called it “sad,” and Foster knew one of the most loyal members of the team was close to quitting.
“I wanted to impress everyone in my school. All of my friends and my parents, to show them I was a varsity player,” Lewis said. “I just went with it. I was about to quit, but something told me not to.”
Lewis persevered, and even though he comes off the bench as a senior, he now proudly rides with one of the DCIAA’s most surprising teams this winter. McKinley (11-3, 4-0) has won three straight and sits atop the DCIAA East, in large part because it has two prolific scorers in Justin Grant and Christian Lutete, a pair of physical swingmen who average 16 points per game apiece and give McKinley a presence on the blocks that it was desperately in search of last season.
McKinley’s resurgence runs deeper, though. In a league where rosters have a high turnover from year to year, Foster has been able to build continuity in his third year at the helm. He’s done it with players like Anthony Carthen, who Foster coached in middle school and convinced to come to McKinley, where he now averages 7.4 points per game and is the team’s best defender. And Foster has won the loyalty of role players like Lewis and Ronald Scott (9.8 ppg) who have paid their dues as underclassmen and have proven to have the ability to hit pressure-packed shots that can change the course of a season. Scott had 14 points in a 62-61 win over Ballou on Jan. 11.
“We don’t have that over-the-top talent,” Foster said. “the kids have bought into the things we’ve been preaching the last three years.”
The physicality of Grant and Lutete has helped McKinley match up against the DCIAA West powers (Grant had 25 points in a loss to No. 20 Coolidge earlier this month), and the Trainers will need that edge in the face of upcoming DCIAA East tests. McKinley will play seven of its next eight on the road, including a three-game slate at H.D. Woodson (9-2, 3-1), Ballou (9-5, 3-1) and Spingarn (3-8, 2-2) within a seven-day stretch in early February.
The one-point win over Ballou on Jan. 11 was followed by the last-second thriller against Spingarn last week. With the game tied, and only nine seconds remaining, Foster drew up a play off the inbound. After a missed jumped shot, Lewis got the offensive rebound. Spingarn players had forgotten to box him out. After he hit the game-winner, he said he thought long and hard about the decision he made to stick with the program last year.
“I didn’t realize all of this was going to happen, this year,” Lewis said. “It was a big decision I had to make, and I made it.”