At first, the tears came slowly.
Jeremiah Bonsu of the Pickerington High School North boys basketball team has no trouble recounting how he was the last cut made by coach Pete Liptrap during varsity tryouts each of the past two seasons and how he made it the final cut with the freshman team three years ago. He even chuckled a bit at how he met the same fate three years in a row.
What made Bonsu emotional was recalling how members of the program took him in and went to some lengths to ensure that he was included. He was a team manager in previous seasons, and this year's seniors went to Liptrap before the season and pleaded with him to include Bonsu on the roster.
"I came back last May ... I was terrible because I was so out of shape," Bonsu said, adding that he had undergone a hernia operation last spring. "After an open gym, I saw (senior guard) Jamie Hence and I told him I wasn't sure I'd play. I didn't want to try out anymore and I'm not that good at basketball. But Jamie just told me, 'You can't quit because you're our brother.' He's always been the guy who's never asked me to get water during practice. He just tells me I'm their teammate."
This season, Bonsu is in all senses of the word.
The 6-foot senior guard sees limited playing time, but he might be the Panthers' most vocal supporter. Through 16 games, of which he appeared in nine, he was 0-for-5 from the field and 1-for-4 from the foul line with one turnover. His one point came Dec. 10 in a 61-49 win over Canal Winchester.
"If he plays a minute, he's happy. If he doesn't play any, he's happy," Liptrap said. "He just wants to be a part of the Pickerington North basketball program."
Bonsu vividly recalls his first varsity appearance, which came in the Panthers' season-opening, 61-32 win at Teays Valley on Dec. 4.
"(Senior guard) Marcus (Chatman) threw me a perfect pass and I missed a layup. Then I missed a jumper," Bonsu said. "It was crazy. That first Central game (a 58-40 loss on Dec. 18), same thing. Just warming up, I was thinking how that was the game I wanted to play in the most."
Bonsu, who hopes to attend Ohio State or Miami University before going on to Harvard Law School to become a business lawyer, uses his time on the bench to encourage his teammates and act as an extra coach. It was that analytical eye that might have changed his course as far as North's program was concerned. He went to freshman coach Scott Thacker to discuss plays on the day he ended up being cut, but Thacker was so impressed by Bonsu's curiosity that he asked him to be the team manager.
"He's probably one of the more knowledgeable players about the game on our bench, and he's always talking and supporting," Liptrap said. "Even though he hasn't been on the team, he's been around us. I think it was a wise decision to keep him. It's been nothing but a blessing."
One of Bonsu's eight classmates on the team, guard Mason Olszewski, also is filling a similar role. Olszewski has been sidelined since mid-December from the effects of a stress fracture in his back sustained during football.
"I'm just trying to be a leader off the court," Olszewski said. "I've tried to give pre-game speeches, but I don't know how well those have worked. The guys can tell you about those.
"It's been totally different not playing. It's terrible. I always wanted to stay with the team. I'm part of the team. I didn't work my butt off for three years just to quit. I still wanted to be around."
Bonsu knows that feeling all too well. He hoped to see time in the Panthers' final home game Feb. 5 against Groveport, which also was the their senior night.
"I won't sit here and say I'm the most skilled player there is, but I think I'm one of the hardest workers because I like to play hard," Bonsu said. "If you're playing, you have to go as hard as you can regardless of the score. I know for a fact there are other guys watching the game who wish they could be playing."
Race tightens for OCC-Ohio title
Central had its lead in the OCC-Ohio Division get sliced from two games to one on Feb. 1, as that night the Tigers lost to host Grove City 79-66 and second-place Reynoldsburg beat host North 56-46 in overtime.
Central entered the week atop the OCC-Ohio at 9-2 with three league games left. Reynoldsburg was 8-3, followed by Newark (7-3) and Grove City (8-4).
Junior forward Jae'Sean Tate had a game-high 30 points, nine rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot to lead Central, which led Grove City by eight points early but was outscored 45-33 in the second half. The Tigers were 12-5 overall and 9-2 in the OCC-Ohio before playing host to Newark on Feb. 5.
Central and Reynoldsburg split their two league meetings, with the Raiders winning 53-52 on Dec. 14 at Central and the Tigers winning 60-59 in overtime Jan. 25 at Reynoldsburg.