- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

WILSON, N.C. (AP) - Thirty points.

In one of the darkest hours imaginable for Wilson Christian Academy eighth-grader Zach Hunter and his family, the simple act of taking to the basketball court would have been a victory in itself.

Last Tuesday, Zach lost his sister, 19-year-old Emilee, in a car accident on Wiggins Mill Road. On Friday, Emilee’s funeral was held.

And just hours after the graveside service ended, the Wilson Christian middle school boys basketball Blue team, of which Zach is a member, was scheduled to play rival Raleigh Friendship Christian at home.

Zach wanted to play, but the final decision rested with his parents, Craig and Lisa Hunter.

“When he came to me and said ‘Mama, I really want to play in the game, can I play in the game?’” Lisa recalled. “Of course, my first thought went to what are people going to think? We’re just burying our daughter, and we’re going to go to a basketball game?

“And I could hear Emilee telling me ‘Mama, just let him play. Just let him play.’ So we decided that this was the healing process for him and this is what she would want and what he wanted. And everybody just kind of got caught on fire.”

At the burial, Emilee’s boyfriend, Cole Dudley, was asked to place the first rose on Emilee’s casket. He was supposed to go alone. But it didn’t happen. Instead, he grabbed Zach by the neck and brought him along.

As the rose was placed, Cole whispered a message to Zach.

“Zachary, I want 30 points tonight,” Cole said. “I told him, you ain’t got to play in this game. You’re strong if you play in this game, I would not have played that game. He went and played in the game and dropped 30 points on the dot.”

Emilee’s death did cause Zach to think about not playing, but he returned to practice Thursday night in preparation to play Friday.

“The decision got a little more difficult because my sister died,”

Zach said. “But I just thought, like my mom said, (Emilee) would want me to do it. If anything, she would want me to do it. So, I just did it for Emilee.”

Zach’s head coach, Ryan Vanderboegh, was a pallbearer at Emilee’s funeral.

“I care a lot about the family,” Vanderboegh assured. “Being able to coach Zach has been an honor. Any of these kids, it’s just an honor to be able to coach them and love working with them, especially at the young age.

“We know where Emilee is right now. We know she’s in heaven and we know she trusted Christ as savior. That’s the reason she’s there. It’s tough, but we also know that one day, we’re going to see her again.”

For Zach, it was now time for a release.

“The main thing about this - yes, we lost a daughter and it was tragic,” Craig Hunter reviewed. “But we don’t want life - I don’t want to say it wrong - but I don’t think life needs to stop just because of that for Zachary. We want him to feel just as comfortable and just give him the things that he enjoys doing.”

An outpouring of support in the crowd from Emilee and Cole’s closest friends - and even the opposing team - greeted the Chargers as they took the floor Friday. Signs in support of the Hunters could be found in the crowd, and the atmosphere went far beyond a typical middle school basketball game. Some attendees observed a Wilson Christian basketball game for the first time as the team ran out to a human tunnel.

“It was almost like a Cameron Crazy-type atmosphere, to be quite frank,” uncle Ed Hunter recalled. “It was the chants that you see on your college basketball games, it was everything. The whole team seemed to rally around it. I mean, It just took the gym over by storm.

Everybody was there knowing what was going on, including the visiting team. It was a great atmosphere to be in.”

Zach opened the game by missing his first two shots and was whistled for a charge on a borderline call in the early going. Vanderboegh worked to settle him down, and by the end of the first quarter, he had compiled 12 points.

In fact, it was at the end of the first quarter where the seeds of a special performance began to sprout.

With time running down, Zach started to shoot from behind the 3-point line. A Friendship Christian defender darted in front of his face. But Zach double pumped the ball, shot it, and the ball went through the net.

“There was 5 seconds on the clock, and all I thought about was trying to get a good shot,” he said. “All I did was get the ball down the court, got a screen and just put it up and it went in.”

At that point, Vanderboegh was convinced that a memorable performance was on tap.

“As soon as he hit that, I thought, we’ve got something going tonight!” he said.

Indeed, Zach was going. He took over the game from the inside and the outside, and was sitting on 28 points in the last minute of play. In fulfilling Cole’s prediction at Emilee’s graveside, Zach bucketed his 29th and 30th points. That’s when the crowd started a chant of “30 points!”

“He didn’t drop 32, he didn’t drop 27, he dropped 30 on the head,”

Cole reminded.

On this night, 30 points was more than enough. Vanderboegh soon signaled for time with 13 seconds left. and Zach was taken out of the game to a powerful ovation with 13 seconds left. Wilson Christian went on to win 47-37.

The game was a chance for Zach to be his normal self again, but even on the floor, Emilee didn’t stray from his thoughts.

“I thought about it the whole time,” Zach said of his sister’s presence. “Every time I made a shot, I would look up to heaven to say ‘That was for you.’”

But the story doesn’t begin and end with Zach’s 30-point game in the face of family tragedy.

Last week after the accident, Ed Hunter posted a Facebook message asking for opinions on a slogan to carry forward. The options were “DoItForEm” and “DoIt4Em.”

The vote was in favor of DoIt4Em. From there, Cole aggressively retweeted #DoIt4Em on Twitter, seeing the impact that other retweeting campaigns on social media have had. Soon, the retweets started rolling in from notable North Carolina college athletes, including UNC basketball player Marcus Paige and football player Ryan Switzer. East Carolina football standouts Shane Carden, Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones retweeted. Even John Wall of the Washington Wizards offered a retweet, as did Greenfield School product and current Wake Forest player Aaron Rountree. A literal full-court press is underway to have Zach’s story featured on an ESPN platform, and ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg has also joined the legion of retweeters. In addition to his Times interview Monday, Zach was also a radio guest of Adam Gold on WCMC 99.9-FM.

“It blew up after the game,” Ed Hunter said. “After the game, one of the coaches out there threw a tweet to Sportscenter, and he knew nothing about the hashtag. So I went right behind him and retweeted it and put the hashtag that you now see with the number four up there.

Cole saw it, and when Cole saw it, he worked on it relentlessly. So I hashtagged it, but I’ll give Cole and all his friends all the benefit of how large it’s grown.”

Yet what exactly is that “it” in #DoIt4Em?

“It can be anything,” Cole said. “Do anything for Em. Do your life for Em. Do this for Em, do that for Em. Just do it for Em.”

Through tragedy, the caring side of the Wilson community has risen to the forefront.

“People always talk crap about Wilson - they’re ready to get out of Wilson and Wilson ain’t the best place, but when stuff like this happens, you really see how big of a family Wilson is,” Cole said.

“Wilson has done a lot and I really appreciate everybody for all their help they’ve done.”

Ed Hunter agreed.

“I’ve never in my life seen a community of kids from all schools, it don’t matter which school,” he recalled. “You name it, any school in Wilson - private, public, charter.”

Added Zach: “Not just supporting me, supporting my whole family.

People from I don’t even know….the visitation, about 3,000 people came that I didn’t know. It’s remarkable how many people came.


Information from: The Wilson Daily Times, https://www.wilsondaily.com



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