(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- The Sikeston Bulldogs basketball team seemed to have a different player step up with a huge game on different nights.
In fact, seven different players led the Bulldogs in scoring this season.
But two players stepped up and became the leaders of the team during the Bulldogs' 14-game winning streak that ended with a runner-up finish in the state in Class 4 with a 23-7 record.
The two, junior guard Julian Beard and freshman forward Michael Porter, always seemed to be there when the team needed them the most, the two always seemed to be the ones that had the big games.
Both were recently rewarded with their standout seasons with AP all-state recognition with Porter making the first team and Beard being selected to the second team. Beard was also picked first team all-state by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association.
Beard and Porter are the first Sikeston players to receive all-state recognition in the same season since 1995 when Steven Geralds and Allen Hatchett were both honored in Class 4A, the state's largest classification at the time.
Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said both players making it was just a sign that people recognized how team-oriented the Bulldogs were.
"That is unusual -- that just shows we weren't a one-man team," said Holifield. "We'd go nine or 10 people deep and a lot of times it was a different guy every night. We'd have guys come off the bench and have great games, even in state playoff competition. It was an entire team effort and we emphasized that all season. It was a very unselfish group."
Porter joins an almost non-existent group of players that have been selected as not only all-state players, but first team all-state.
Not even southeast Missouri area superstars such as Tyler Hansbrough or Marcus Timmons received all-state recognition as freshmen.
But Porter, who turned 15 just a couple weeks ago, was, at times, Sikeston's go-to player this season.
He led the team in points (15.3) and rebounds (7.2) per game. He shot 61 percent from the field, dished out 90 assists with 50 steals and 58 blocks.
"I feel glad for making it, but anybody on the starting five for Sikeston could've been all-state," said Porter. "It's not a big deal, not to me at least. I knew I was going to play varsity, but I didn't think I'd play this much."
Holifield said it all starts with attitude.
"He's very mature for his age," said Holifield. "He did a great job on and off the court. He's outstanding in the classroom as well and he had a great team attitude and improved every day because his work ethic was so good.
"Getting first team all-state was a nice addition to the great year he had. Our entire team pulled together. Michael is one of many talented players we had. For him to accomplish what he did at his age is quite a surprise."
Beard, always a talented player that had trouble with consistency, led the Bulldogs in scoring the last 13 games and saved his best for the biggest stages.
He finished the season averaging 13.5 ppg with 4.3 rpg. He shot 81.4 percent from the free throw line with 56 assists, 51 steals and making 23 3-pointers.
"I just like winning, in general -- that's the biggest thing," said Beard. "If you win, that's when you get things like all-state. It's nice to get honors, but I just want to win first and foremost."
Somewhere around the middle of the season, Beard went from having a good year to a great year.
Beard said the change wasn't physical, but mental.
"I started playing within myself," said Beard. "Coach always used to tell me to let the game come to you. But I never knew what that meant until this year.
He said to just calm down and play within the game and the game will come to you. And that's what I did."
Beard thinks it might have happened when the Bulldogs played Portageville on a Saturday evening in January.
Beard had one of his worst games of the year while battling the flu. Late in the game, Holifield benched the frustrated Beard as the Bulldogs rallied to defeat Portageville in overtime behind Porter's career-high 35 points.
Beard said after the game, a light bulb went on in his head.
"I just got to sit back and watch," said Beard. "We were down by a lot and they were out there playing team ball. We came back and Michael had a big game. I just got to see what team ball was. That's when I started playing more as a team player too."
Holifield also noticed a change in Beard's behavior and his play on the court.
"At that point, he made a decision within himself, 'I want to be a really good player on a really good team,'" said Holifield. "He stepped up and took the responsibility. Julian was mature enough to accept that responsibility.
"He improved, not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end and he really became a good player, especially the last six weeks of the season. He became very consistent night in and night out. He could go inside or outside offensively. His ball handling improved a great deal. His work ethic improved so much from the start of the season to the end and that's why he developed down the stretch."
Porter moved to Sikeston with his family last summer. When he and his three brothers started popping in to summer conditioning workouts, Holifield could see right away that the youngster was blessed with tremendous talent.
Although, he never envisioned the spindly 6-foot-3 kid to become an all-
state caliber player.
He thought maybe the freshman could help out the varsity for a couple quarters a night.
"You could tell he'd been around basketball his whole life," said Holifield. "He's very knowledgeable and I knew he would get better and better."
But as summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, Porter seemed to improve with each game. With each practice.
He got bigger. He got stronger. He was growing. He was playing with more confidence with each game and, despite being so young and new to the team, he wasn't afraid to take on a leadership role.
Porter said playing with his older brothers, Josh, Isaac and Ray Rodgers, helped prepare him for the varsity battles.
"I didn't want to hog the spotlight, I just wanted to help the team out," said Porter. "I'm glad we made the big move here. In eighth grade I was super skinny, way skinnier than I am now. I wasn't very physical, but I hit the weights and played every day and got more physical. I'm just glad my dad brought me up the way he did having me play with Isaac and Josh and them when I was little. It gave me a lot of experience of playing with the big boys."
Melvin Porter, Michael's father, moved his family to Sikeston after his coaching contract wasn't renewed at Scott County Central following the 2005 season.
When Michael and his three brothers started showing up to Holifield's conditioning workouts in late July, Michael said he saw immediately that his new team had something special brewing.
The four joined a talented returning cast that one year earlier was a buzzer-
beating basket short of knocking off final four participant Notre Dame in the district tournament.
The Bulldogs returned Beard, Kash Bratcher and Rod Moore, the top three scorers from last season.
Plus there were talented players coming up from the junior varsity team.
"We didn't know who was here at the beginning of the year, but when we got here I knew all along we could make it to state," said Michael. "We came in and we had all the talent here. Coach just said we had to work. We worked hard and we got there. I didn't think it would be that easy of a transition. They welcomed us in. Julian, Kash, Rod, the rest of the team, coach, the whole town welcomed us in. We just got along well from the start. I could tell right away that we were going to be a good team."
Beard said when the Porters showed, Sikeston's returning players took it as a challenge.
"We just wanted to see how good they were," said Beard. "We wanted to see if they could help the team. We had a good team and we knew we were going to be good, but they showed up and I thought we'd be even better. Nobody was jealous, nobody cared who scored. We just wanted to get used to each other so we played all the time. Once we got a feel for everybody, that's when we started winning and went on that big streak.
"Last year we had a decent team, but we had mostly individuals. This year we had a lot of people that were willing to sacrifice stats to win the game. We had a lot of guys that could've scored 20 points a night, but we weren't interested in that. We just wanted to win."
It took a while for Sikeston to jell into a state contender. The Bulldogs started just 9-6 and had just gotten dominated on the road by the Jackson Indians.
"It takes some time for them to get used to each other," said Holifield. "Plus we were playing really good people early. We were playing teams that were darn good and that helped us get better and better."
The Bulldogs wouldn't lose again until the state final.
Along the way Sikeston knocked off two-time defending Class 5 champion Poplar Bluff, which proved to be the Bulldogs' statement win of the season at that point.
Sikeston had already defeated Notre Dame by 22 points on the road in December, but the team didn't get much recognition for it.
A week later, Notre Dame had won the seMissourian Christmas Tournament. Notre Dame then moved into the state rankings the rest of the season while Sikeston continuously got overlooked.
The Bulldogs were even fighting just to stay in the top 10 poll in the SEMO area.
But the Poplar Bluff win silenced the critics. Respect had been earned. And a potential Notre Dame-Sikeston district championship game was being hyped.
The game became a reality as both teams posted convincing semifinal victories.
On a February Friday night in front of 3,000 fans packed into the Sikeston Field House, Sikeston defeated state-ranked Notre Dame 69-65 in a classic showdown.
Beard scored 19 and Porter had 16 in the game that numerous fans called "the best game I've ever seen."
Porter said the Notre Dame victory was his favorite moment of the season.
"People really didn't think we could do it," said Porter. "They'd say, 'Sikeston doesn't have anything going.' We proved everybody wrong. We were an underdog most of the season and came out on top."
Sikeston rolled past De Soto in the sectional round and rallied to defeat St. James in the quarterfinals behind Porter's 20 points and Beard's 17, including three 3-pointers.
Sikeston put on a show at the Class 4 semifinals in defeating Ozark 84-79. The Bulldogs hit four consecutive 3-pointers en route to a 14-0 lead.
Ozark made a comeback, but Sikeston made 18 free throws in a row in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Beard scored 22 points, had a jaw-dropping slam dunk on Ozark's 6-8 center Tyler Oakley, and knocked down two huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
If there was any question to whether Beard was an all-state player, his performance against Ozark solidified it.
The Bulldogs were defeated by a senior-laden St. Francis Borgia 77-62 in the championship game, but Sikeston got to experience the state tournament with the majority of the team underclassmen.
With Beard and Michael Porter returning, along with Isaac Porter, Rodgers and Blake Taylor, the Bulldogs already have five players that saw extensive playing time this season.
Michael's opinion of next season?
"I say we're going to win it," he said.
"I know we've got experience and that's going to be our biggest thing," said Beard. "We lost two starters. But we've got Blake and Ray coming in every game and they had a lot of experience on the court, so I think we'll be alright. I think we've got the talent to win it all."
Holifield knows he has some talented players returning. But above all, he enjoys working with a group of players that have winning attitudes.
"We're very optimistic about next season," said Holifield. "I know these players well enough to know that they're going to spend a lot of time together and work together. And not just because of their talent, but because of their team attitude. All the players we return have a terrific team attitude and if you have that, you have a chance to really put a good basketball team on the court."
-- My family. I've been playing with my brothers and my dad's been teaching me since I was little. My momma's been there to support me. I've got a good family that helps keep my head on my shoulders.
-- I just want to keep my grades up. I don't know. Basketball is my life. That's about the only thing right there.
-- When we beat Notre Dame. We knew whoever's going to get that game was going to state.
What will it take to win a state title? -- Get back in the gym and start working. That's what we're doing now. Most of our team is at the YMCA almost every day after school and at night. We lift weights, work out and play pickup games.
-- Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat. He has a good understanding of the game. It's just the way he plays. He plays hard all the time and most of the time he's not making facial expressions and that's what coach is trying to get me not to do. I try to look to somebody to help me.
-- Working out, running, homework and eating.
-- When I dunked on the Oakley kid from Ozark and we beat them at state. There was a big crowd and we held on for the win. That was nice.
What will it take for a state title?
-- We've just got to get in the gym and work hard every day. The best thing about us going up there is we know how hard we've got to work to get back to that point.