Whitaker brothers get a chance to suit up together
Family is more than just a cliche word for the Coal Ridge Titans’ boys basketball program. The word is a foundational piece to the uniqueness and togetherness of the Titan program. Tonight in New Castle, that word will take on a larger meaning for the Whitaker brothers: senior Jake; sophomore Jared; and freshman Nate.
Against the Olathe Pirates at Coal Ridge High School at 7 p.m. tonight, Titan Head Coach Paul Harvey will suit up all three together for the boy’s varsity game for the first — and only — time, which happens to directly correlate with Jake’s Senior Night celebration. The Whitakers won’t be the only set of brothers suiting up together tonight, as senior Brandon Herrera will have his brother, Andrew — a freshman — suit up with him, as well. The Whitaker story will pull at heart strings, though, as just under one year ago, Nate underwent brain surgery to shave off a small part of his brain to help stop seizures he’d have at night.
The seizures for Nate started two and a half years ago when the family was in Texas for a vacation. Understandably, the episode scared the entire family, but at the time the Whitaker family didn’t seem to understand what was happening. Upon returning to the valley, Nate continued to have seizures before being diagnosed with epilepsy. Nate tried to take medicine to help combat the neurological episodes, but the medication didn’t work properly, which led to the now-freshman having brain surgery in Phoenix during spring break in 2017.
During that time, Nate’s teammates face-timed with him prior to the surgery and also wrote his number on their sleeves for games. It was a long road back for the terrific shooter, but while he isn’t 100 percent recovered according to his teammates, the love of the game and the ability to just have fun on a basketball court are enough for Nate.
“I went through six months of physical therapy, and all the coaches for baseball and basketball let me practice and play with the guys, which really helped me,” Nate said prior to Wednesday’s practice in New Castle. “The seniors on this team really encourage me as much as they can, and it really helps me in my recovery.”
Returning to action this winter for the Titans’ C team, Nate played a key role on the freshman squad, rolling through a 19-0 record, which happens to be the best season in school history for any level of basketball at Coal Ridge. Now, Nate gets to share a special night with his two older brothers by suiting up for varsity on a night in which the Titans will clinch the 3A Western Slope League championship for the third consecutive season with a win over the Pirates.
“It’s really cool to get this chance to suit up with varsity,” Nate said. “I always played with Jared because we’re a year apart in age, but I never really got the chance to play with Jake, so that will be fun. And all the upperclassmen are so nice and respectful, so it’s going to be really cool to get this opportunity.”
For Harvey, who has served as the head coach at Coal Ridge for 11 years, suiting up brothers on Senior Night isn’t something new. In fact, Harvey started the tradition two years ago, and it’s taken off since then, largely due to the opportunity to suit brothers up together on Senior Night presenting itself.
“It all came from our street ball shirts two years ago with our ‘Volume Family’ theme,” Harvey said. “Our whole theme was family because we spent so much time together and we were brothers in arms, and I kind of liked that theme. The players liked that theme so much that it happened again last year with Hunter [Gerber] and his brother [Austin], and Martin [Camunez] and his brother [Jesus]. So I said, ‘You know what? Let’s suit them up.’ The whole point was to just suit them up and have them go through pregame and sit on the bench, but then they got to play, so it kind of took off from there.
“Nate’s story is remarkable, and it’s remarkable what that family has overcome in the last few years. I know this summer when Nate was still recovering, he played in our summer league and I saw his Mom up there in the stands with tears running down her face because she never thought her son was going to play basketball again. To see him compete in summer basketball, I felt that it was special. I want to celebrate their brotherhood.”
Jake and Jared have shared varsity time this season, but adding in Nate, especially after all he’s gone through in the last few years, makes for an incredible story around the boys’ program in New Castle. Although there’s no guarantee all three will get on the court together at once against the Pirates, just getting the chance to suit up together for Jake’s final regular season home game in a Titans uniform is something special that can’t ever be replicated.
“This feels like a really unique opportunity,” Jake said. “This is something we dreamed about as kids, playing together on a team at some point. This is going to be really great and a lot of fun to get a chance to do this. Going into the surgery, there was a chance that Nate would never play sports again, so it’s really great to see just how far along he’s come in his recovery to be able to be at this point.”
For Jared, playing on the same team throughout most of his life with Nate, tonight’s chance to suit up together on varsity will be extra special, considering all that he’s watched Nate go through over the last few years.
“There were some consequences of him having brain surgery,” Jared said. “He lost feeling in the lower part of his right leg, so he had to wear a brace for awhile. But he’s come so far since then. Just him being able to run and play is so amazing to me, because when I first saw him coming out of surgery, there were concerns. It’s been such a long ride for him and I can’t wait to share the court with him and Jake. It’s so amazing to me that we’ll get to experience this together. We’re so close as brothers, so it’s pretty special to me to have all of us together at the same time.”
The Titans and Pirates tip off at 7 p.m. in the Titans’ final 3A Western Slope League regular season home game of the year.
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Coal Ridge 69, Grand Junction Central 23