° empty

Natchez High seniors built eight-year friendship on the court

Natchez High School seniors Lorenzo Smith, from left, Dearius Griffin, Gary Woods and Keylan Wimley started playing basketball together in the fifth-grade becoming close friends as well as teammates. NHS ended its season with an overall record of 13-9. (Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat)
Natchez High School seniors Lorenzo Smith, from left, Dearius Griffin, Gary Woods and Keylan Wimley started playing basketball together in the fifth-grade becoming close friends as well as teammates. NHS ended its season with an overall record of 13-9. (Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — When the final buzzer sounded in Natchez High School’s game against Wingfield High School Tuesday, the Bulldog seniors saw the end of more than their high school basketball careers.

The 71-67 loss took away the big finish seniors De’Arius Griffin, Gary Woods, Lorenzo Smith and Keylan Wimley hoped. Their dreams stemmed from small beginnings.

The foursome had big hopes of winning championships since they were in fifth grade playing little league basketball at Martin Gym on Homochitto Street.

But at the time, Woods and Smith played together on a youth team, and Griffin was their enemy.

“I didn’t like (Griffin) at first,” Woods joked. “He was a cheater. He’s so cocky.”

Smith said off the court, there was no beef with Griffin, but on the court, it was war.

“It’s not that we didn’t like him,” Smith said. “He was just like a rival, and we wanted to beat him.”

Griffin said the dislike didn’t bother him. It was all about winning from the start.

The fierce competitiveness was all in good fun, but Woods, Smith and Griffin had to learn to turn their competitiveness into unity as they all ended up playing for Robert Lewis Middle School.

Smith said he was a little edgy about playing with Griffin, but started to see the bright side of the situation.

“It makes you want to play with somebody more, because you know he can play,” Smith said. “We probably started becoming really close in the eighth grade.”

By then, the trio won two district championships.

For most public school children, the transition from Robert Lewis naturally leads to Natchez High School, which gave Woods, Griffin and Smith four more years to gain chemistry on the floor.

But this time, they finally got the chance to play with long-time friend Wimley.

Wimley attended Morgantown Elementary with Woods and Smith, but never had a chance to share the court until high school.

“I came in ninth grade, and we bonded more,” Wimley said. “When we got to high school, we knew we couldn’t do what we wanted to do, we had to be ready to play.”

Smith said he was aware coming to high school as freshmen would be different, and he and his friends had no problem working their way to the starting line up — together.

Wimley said the foursome was aware it was their turn to step up toward the end of their junior year.

“It started last year when we lost (in the playoffs),” Wimley said. “Coach started treating us as seniors then, and we knew we had to step up and put the work in during the summer.”

The seniors said they spent nearly every day in the high school gym last summer getting ready for their senior year.

The Bulldogs started the year 11-0 before inconsistency put them in a rocky position, but Griffin said the MHSAA Division 6-5A Tournament would be their last chance to make the most of their senior year, literally.

“We knew we had to play every game like it’s our last, because it could be,” Griffin said. “We just wanted to win one game at a time and make it to Friday.”

But the Bulldogs had reached the end of the road in the first round against Wingfield, and Woods said his heart dropped the moment he knew it was over.

“It was the fourth quarter with 0.1 seconds left,” he said. “We took a timeout and we knew everything we worked for over the summer time is coming to an end.”

The Bulldogs headed to the locker room in silence, their heads hung low and only coaches Mike Martin and David Haywood speaking.

Wimley said the meaning of the loss didn’t hit him until that moment.

“I shed a few tears because it was my last high school game,” Wimley said. “There was anger as well, because it wasn’t fair how the game had ended.”

The seniors still have yet to talk about the game in detail with each other because the wounds have yet to heal.

But one thing they are sure of, is though their high school careers are finished, they still have a long time to fill as best friends.

“They’re going to always be my brothers, so I try not to think about what’s going to happen next,” Woods said.

The four have aspirations to attend different colleges in the south, but Wimley said it would be cool if they ended up at the same university in the fall.

Until then, Woods, Griffin and Smith plan to play on the same AAU team this summer, with one shot left at a championship before they all take separate paths to becoming men and better basketball players.