PAULLINA, Iowa | A measure of poetic justice rattles the rafters as the clock ticks away, counting down South O'Brien's 54-42 victory over Graettinger-Terril/Ruthven-Ayrshire on Feb. 28 at Spencer Fieldhouse in Spencer, Iowa.
The triumph sends the Wolverines to their first state tournament in 24 years as a consolidated school district.
The poetic justice comes in who holds the ball as the buzzer sounds and a celebration begins. It's Wyatt Sickelka, a seldom-used senior who could have easily sat out this season.
"I might not come off looking too good if you write this," South O'Brien Coach Kiley Yates tells me Friday night following a send-off pep rally and auction in the gym at Paullina, site of South O'Brien High School. "I had a meeting with Wyatt after the season last year and I was very open. I'm very communicative and I encourage that with our players, too."
Open communication? Sure sounds like it. Yates tells Sickelka, then a junior, that he'd be welcome to come out for basketball as a senior. The caveat? Wyatt likely wouldn't receive much playing time.
"I deal in the truth with our players," Yates says.
The head coach has a policy whereby he can cut senior players from the squad, a practice that exists elsewhere. One reason is that if a senior isn't skilled enough to help a team this season, it might not do much good to have him around all winter. After all, he's not going to help the team next year, after he's graduated.
Sickelka plays a bit as a junior, as the team goes 11-11. After the post-season talk with Yates, Sickelka lays low. He doesn't take part in summer shooting sessions and team camps.
That's OK with Yates, a detail that represents an exception.
"I told Wyatt that because he had stuck it out for three years he'd have a spot on our team as a senior, whether he did any of the summer workouts or not," Yates says. "I would not cut him. Wyatt's a great kid to have on the team, a great student, a great teammate, a high-character kid you want to have around."
Sickelka, the son of James and Denise Sickelka, goes about his 4-H work and his job at the Main Market grocery story in Sutherland, Iowa, over the summer. He participates in cross country during the fall. He doesn't think about basketball until November, two weeks before the season starts.
"I talked with Coach Yates about coming out," Sickelka says. "Dallas Jalas, a classmate, had talked about basketball in a class we had together and I thought I'd miss it."
Yates repeats his game plan for Sickelka: He'd play, but likely only after games have been decided. Mop-up minutes, people call them.
"That was OK with me," Sickelka says. "I like running, exercising and being with my friends. I also thought I could help make the team better."
Over the past three months, that's what he's done. Sickelka plays point guard on the scout team at practice. He does his best to defend Jalas, making the senior star work for his shots in practice.
Yates says Sickelka, the ninth player in an 8-man rotation, has been his unselfish and intelligent best all season, very much part of the chemistry that has helped lead to 22 wins, including 16 in a row for South O'Brien.
Along the way, Sickelka scores 11 points. The soft-spoken crowd favorite nearly brings down the house when he banks in a three-point bomb earlier this season.
"The crowd goes wild when I come into the game," he says modestly, turning red in the cheeks.
"Wyatt's a heart-throb," a South O'Brien fan says as Wyatt and I walk through the gym late Friday night.
Our interview takes place after he and his teammates sign 250 autographs for an adoring public eager to watch their Wolverines battle the MVAO Rams in a Northwest Iowa Class 1A clash at 2 p.m. on Monday in the Iowa High School Boys State Basketball Tournament.
The "heart-throb" who is known more for his FFA leadership, his 4-H work ethic and a sterling 3.96 grade-point average, says he's thankful he didn't give up on basketball.
"I've tried to make Dallas better and myself better," he says. "Just because you aren't the best at something, it's still good to participate."
Whether that's the lesson, or whether there's something greater at work in this, Wyatt Sickelka says he's not sure. For all the minutes he hasn't played, I tell him, he's still lucky: He's got a District title medal, an autographed state tournament basketball and all kinds of fans from Paullina to Sutherland to Primghar to Gaza to Germantown, basketball burgs that make up the school district he represents with class.
The senior looks around the South O'Brien gym, a place that 30 minutes ago was filled with fans who honored the school's first state tournament team, his team.
"I've also got the memories," he says with a nod. "When I look back on this 30 years from now, I'll say I'm glad I went out."