BROADLANDS — The coach in Andy Place is focused on basketball at Heritage High School.
The teacher in him has been forced to deal with a series of life lessons.
A 71-48 win against Georgetown-Ridge Farm on Thursday in first-round action of the BSN Basketball Classic was nice, yet Place acknowledged, “It has been a sad year.”
An expected strength when last season ended — the Hawks’ backcourt — is performing capably with totally different players.
Guard Brandon Umbarger, who would have been one of nine seniors on this season’s team, died in an automobile accident last Memorial Day weekend, a few weeks after his 17th birthday.
The Heritage players wear a patch with his number (24) on their jerseys.
“Brandon was what we want our program to be, a good student, a good person,” Place said. “These seniors out there are his best friends. It has been hard. It was a tragic loss, and we’ve dedicated the season to him.”
The uniform number has been retired. Since Heritage was formed in the fall of 1990, only two players wore No. 24 in basketball. The other was Umbarger’s brother, 2010 graduate Nick Umbarger.
“The way Brandon ended last season, we thought he might be our top player,” Place said. “In our last six games, he averaged 16 points a game.”
The other projected returning guard was another current senior, Keaton Kalk.
Five days after his teammate died, Kalk tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
An honorable mention All-Area selection as a junior, Kalk was determined to return to action sooner than the typical nine months that’s often needed for rehabilitation.
Kalk worked diligently and earned his first start Dec. 15, Heritage’s last game before the BSN Tournament. It was his third game back on the court.
“He was on an accelerated pace to get back, and I told him he can take credit for knowing he worked hard to make it back,” Place said.
In his first game as a starter, Kalk tore the ACL in his other knee. His season is finished.
“This has been a season for teaching life lessons,” Place said.
Helping the team cope — and honor the memory of Umbarger — are the seniors. Four of the top five scorers against the Buffaloes were seniors as Heritage improved its record to 5-5.
John Taylor scored 16 points, Brandon Richardson had 14 and Austin Dickey and D.J. Robertson each added eight. The Hawks’ other top scorer was sophomore Chance Lemmon, with 14 points.
“We feel like we have quite a few who can score,” Place said, “but it hasn’t shown up until today. We haven’t been able to finish plays. Today, we seemed more relaxed.
“Offensively, we took a great step forward.”
Those five top scorers also accounted for 24 of the team’s 29 rebounds, with Richardson and Robertson each grabbing seven.
The Hawks didn’t take the lead for good against G-RF until a basket by Taylor at 3:17 of the second period put them ahead 23-22 and started a 12-0 run to end the half. The Buffaloes, led by Kyle Coburn’s game-high 21 points and nine rebounds, were never closer than seven points thereafter.
The uniform patch is not the only time the Hawks think about Umbarger. Each time the team breaks a huddle, it says, ‘Umb-un-tu,” which Place said signifies “togetherness,” a Heritage team strength for the 2012-13 season.