There was no scene from the movie “Hoosiers,” where coach Norman Dale turns to his praying player in the locker room and says, “Strap, God wants you on the floor.”
For Whale Branch coach Linc Lyles and his boys basketball team, there was an understanding from the beginning that, for two of his star players, religious beliefs take precedent over basketball.
Brothers Simeon and Michael Middleton have not played in the past two Class A state championship games, both of which were held on Saturday afternoons at Colonial Life Arena. The Middletons are Seventh Day Adventists, meaning they observe the Sabbath by not participating in non-religious activities from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday.
Without the Middletons, Whale Branch has lost the past two state title games.
“It was very difficult,” Simeon, a senior, says of not playing in the championship games. “I didn’t want to let my teammates down because I really wanted to win just like any normal person would.
“But, at the same time, I’m not going to put basketball over God. I can’t do that. ... I’ve got to give back to God what he gave to me. He gave me the talent, so I’ve got to give back to Him.”
Lyles says he and his team understand, as well.
“You want people to respect your religion,” says Lyles, the 44-year-old who is the only coach in the Beaufort school’s four year-history. “That’s one of our teaching points with our kids: It’s an understanding. People talk about it, but in a positive way. Yes, of course, we want our kids to play every game. But we certainly understand. We knew this going in.”
Lyles first learned of the Middletons’ religious beliefs when Simeon was a sophomore and Michael a freshman, and both were playing on the Whale Branch junior varsity team.
The young Warriors were 17-0 heading to a season-finale game at Estill on a Friday afternoon. The start of the game was delayed, then headed to overtime when the sun began to set. The Middletons left the gym and headed home, while their team lost in overtime.
This past season, Whale Branch led Cane Bay by 16 points at halftime in a Thanksgiving tournament game when the sun set on Friday. Again, the Middletons departed, and Whale Branch lost.
There also were games Whale Branch won without the Middletons. The brothers did not play in six games each of the past two seasons, including the Lower State and state championship games both times. Lyles schedules his non-region games for Saturday nights, and has shifted many of his region games to the same time, partly because schools now are realizing they can garner a better gate on Saturday evenings.
A year ago, the shift to a Saturday night game and dealing with the Middletons caught Lyles off-guard. Because sundown on Saturday often occurred during the girls game that preceded the boys game, the Middletons would arrive at the gym just in time to get in uniform and play.
To avoid the stress of not knowing whether the Middletons would arrive on time, Lyles began having them dress for the game at their home. If they were ever late for a game, they were not allowed to be in the starting lineup.
Simeon, the senior, started every game this past season, and Michael occasionally started. Simeon is a 6-foot guard who averaged 13 points as a junior and 10 as a senior. He is a shooter and scorer, putting up 20 points against Lancaster Mennonite.
Michael is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward with a 38-inch vertical leap. He averaged eight points and five rebounds, and usually was given the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s top scorer. Against C.E. Murray in the second round of the playoffs, Michael held Oceanez Fluitt, who scored 44 points in the opening round, without a point in the first half.
So their contributions to Whale Branch’s 24-4 and 23-5 records the past two seasons were not insignificant. Whale Branch officials appealed a year ago to the South Carolina High School League to shift the starting time of the championship game. Understandably, the SCHSL cannot adhere to every wish of every coach. Lyles said there was talk about taking legal action, but he wanted no part of that.
In their absence at the Lower State final and the state championship game, a couple of teammates packed the Middletons tennis shoes in their gym bags, both as a tribute and as a precautionary measure in case the start of the game was somehow delayed past sundown on Saturday.
“Make no mistake about it, they make us a stronger team when they’re there,” Lyles says. “But I don’t want to make excuses and take away from C.A. Johnson. They had an excellent team. They deserved to win.”
As Whale Branch lost an 18-point, first-half lead and eventually the game in overtime, the Middletons sat in their Beaufort home unable to watch the games on TV or listen on the radio. Simeon did receive periodic updates via text messages from Whale Branch sophomore Jonae Riley, who was seated in the stands.
The Middletons naturally were disheartened by the Whale Branch loss to C.A. Johnson, yet comfortable in knowing that their religious beliefs were not compromised.