Youth basketball team wins third consecutive state title

by C. Jemal Horton

The capacity crowd at Greensboro’s Spears YMCA basketball complex was bordering on belligerent. Fans of the hometown Greensboro Galaxy were screaming – really screaming – in an attempt to get the 11-year-old shooter for the other team off his game as he stepped to the free-throw line with a state championship hanging in the balance.

Cornelius native Chase Praeger’s Queen City Athletic Association Force Red team trailed Greensboro by two points. One second was showing on the game clock. And all those Galaxy fans just kept yelling at him.

Yet as the referee handed him the basketball, Praeger suddenly felt a peacefulness come over him.

“I wasn’t nervous,” recalled Praeger, a 5th grader at Cornelius Elementary School. “You just don’t really think about anything because you’ve prepared for this in practice. You just shoot it and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Moments later, Praeger sank a pair of free throws to force overtime in the 2011 Fifth-Grade Division I North Carolina AAU State Championship game. In the extra period, another clutch QCAA Force Red performer Trey Wertz hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining. And a short time later, the entire Charlotte-based team was gathered on the floor celebrating a 42-40 victory.

It was the QCAA Force Red team’s third consecutive state title.

“It was just a remarkable performance,” said QCAA Force Red coach Michael Praeger, who also is Chase’s dad. “We’ve had this same core team for three years, and winning three state championships in a row is remarkable, when you consider that it’s AAU ball.

“We play 11 months a year, and these kids work hard, practicing two or three times a week for two to three hours at a time.

“It’s just good to see that hard work pay off for them.”

Perhaps part of the reason the QCAA Force Red players were so poised in the game’s waning moments is the fact that they’ve made a habit of performing their best with so much on the line. They did it as third-graders, when they won their first state title and went on to claim the 2009 United States Basketball Association National Championship. Last year, as fourth-graders, Wertz’s last-second 3-pointer helped QCAA Red earn its second consecutive state title before a memorable run to the USBA Final Four.

Then last week, on April 16, the QCAA Force Red players added yet another magical chapter to their already-thick basketball memory books.

Things looked good for them early on, as they built what appeared to be a comfortable lead. But Greensboro, a team with whom they’ve fought numerous battles over the past three years, rallied and made a pair of free throws with eight seconds left to take a two-point lead. QCAA inbounded the ball, got close to midcourt and called timeout.

“Our first option was to go to Trey, our leading scorer, and let him penetrate down the side and get a good shot for us,” Michael Praeger recalled.

But Greensboro defenders seemed to anticipate that and swarmed Wertz, so Chase Praeger got the ball, headed toward the hoop and was fouled as he attempted a 3-pointer. With one second left in regulation, Praeger calmly sank his first two free throws. His third attempt, the potential game-winner, was off the mark, but his team had new life in overtime.

The teams went back and forth in the extra period, with QCAA Force Red getting major boosts from Darian Bell’s stifling defense, Elijah Brown’s powerful rebounding and John Crump’s clutch free-throw shooting. Nonetheless, Greensboro built a two-point lead late in the game, and QCAA Red again needed a score.

And this time, Wertz wasn’t going to let a swarming defense get in the way.

With 17 seconds left in the game, Wertz took a hard dribble near the top of the key, stepped back to create space between the defender and himself, and unleashed a 3-pointer.

“I knew I hadn’t shot that well up to that point of the game,” Wertz said of his thoughts as he rose to shoot, “but I told myself, ‘One of these has to go in, and it’s going to be this one.’”

The ball swished through the net, giving QCAA Red a one-point lead – an advantage they never relinquished.

“It feels really good,” said Wertz. “It’s just a huge accomplishment. Most teams don’t even get a chance to reach a state championship game, so I’m happy to win three state championships in a row.”

In addition to Chase Praeger and Wertz, Brown, Bell and Crump, the QCAA roster includes Jerald Blue Jr., Jaylen Bynum, Marcus Henderson, Coleson Leach and Triston Miller.

“We went out there together and beat a good team,” Chase Praeger said proudly. “We feel really good about that. It’s something we’ll never forget.”