PEORIA – It’s been a rough few days for Morgan Park senior Dellan Whatley.
His grandmother, Shirley Conner, suffered a stroke on Wednesday and died. She lived right across the street from Whatley.
Each Sunday before church, she would supply Whatley, an usher, with peppermints.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” Whatley said. “She made sure to always give me peppermints. Sometimes she would pick me up from practice and we’d talk. She had a big influence on my life.”
Conner’s funeral was Friday, the same day as Morgan Park was playing its Class 3A state semifinal game against Orr. Whatley, a reserve guard, did what his grandmother would have wanted and headed to Peoria with his teammates.
“She would have wanted me to play and be happy,” Whatley said. “I knew she would want me to come through if my team needed me.”
It’s been a difficult season for Whatley. He hasn’t produced as consistently as he or his coach, Nick Irvin, would have liked.
That, and having a talented guards in Charlie Moore, Torry Johnson and Jarrin Randall ahead of him on the depth chart led to sporadic playing time for the young man they refer to as “Roach.”
But with the Mustangs trailing 39-31 in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship against Lincoln and with about a minute left before half, Irvin called on Whatley, who had been glued to the bench.
“He kept saying to me, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready'” said Irvin with a hearty laugh. “I told him you’ve got to come with it if you go in the game. I told him, ‘go in.'”
Whatley came with it alright, producing two consecutive steals, which he turned into layups, and helped the Mustangs dig further into a deficit that had reached 13 points moments earlier. Whatley’s baskets trimmed the deficit to 39-35 at the end of three quarters.
Equally as important was that Whatley’s efforts provided a huge boost of momentum for Morgan Park entering the fourth quarter.
The Mustangs were energized; Lincoln looked dazed, like it had been hit with a one-two punch.
Which it had, compliments of Roach.
After playing a total of one minute during Friday’s state semifinal win over Orr and riding the pines Saturday, was Whatley surprised Irvin had called his number at such a crucial time?
“I was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised too because he (Irvin) counts on his seniors,” Whatley said. “I just knew I had to bring something to the table.”
When the fourth quarter started, Whatley was back on the bench. He didn’t play the rest of the way during Morgan Park’s 59-49 win.
His impact in that one minute of play, though, was undeniable.
“That was big-time,” Irvin said. “I’ve been on him all year to be a leader. He’s been through a lot, with his grandmother passing this week. He missed her funeral. It’s been tough on him. But it was his time today.”
I know of a lot of seniors that would have had a difficult time dealing with sitting the pines in favor of underclassmen. Some would have simply quit the team or became a distraction.
Not Whatley, who took responsibility for his lack of playing time.
“I wasn’t playing as well as I should have,” Whatley said. “Charlie Moore, Torry Johnson and even Jarrin Randall we’re picking it up. I was waiting for an opportunity.”
Moore was as happy as anyone to see Whatley receive that opportunity and step into the spotlight.
“I’m happy for Roach,” said Moore, who registered 12 points during the win. “He works hard in practice every day. That’s something I have to do that will make me tougher. He probably had the two biggest plays of the game.”
And because of it, Morgan Park won its second consecutive state title.