Zakee Randell knows what it takes to get to a state championship.
In each of the last two seasons, Zakee has played an integral role in pushing the Scott's Branch boys basketball team to title contention. As a sophomore, Zakee and the Eagles lost a heartbreaker to Great Falls 73-71. A year later, Zakee was back in the SCHSL 1A state title game, where Scott's Branch fell to Southside Christian 66-45.
Now as a senior, Zakee is driven to not only get back to the state championship game, but to leave with a ring.
"It's something that we've been seeking and fighting for for a long time now," Zakee said of a 1A state championship. "With us being there two times and losing, it gives me an extra drive to do what I want to do with this group of guys I have this year."
Zakee's success to thrive on the court long pre-dates his senior season. Growing up, Zakee watched his older brothers find success in athletics. His oldest brother, Everett IV, played college football, while another brother, Terrance Yon, went on to play hoops at Morris College. Having role models in athletics growing up set Zakee on a similar path.
"With us being a sports family, I liked seeing that they could accomplish something coming out of high school. From where we're at in Summerton, it's not always easy to do those kinds of things," Rendell said. "Seeing that they could accomplish those goals in life helped me understand that if I kept working hard and kept pushing, I could do the same thing."
Zakee also had one other crucial element growing up, the gift of height. By the time he was in eight grade, Zakee was already six feet tall. He already loved the sport of basketball and being a head taller than most of his competitors definitely helped. Being tall at an early age also forced Zakee to develop multiple skills on the court before he even reached high school basketball.
"On the rec level with the older group, the defense wasn't able to come out to the three-point line. That gave me the advantage, being tall, to shoot the ball. So, I learned how to shoot and adapted to it," Zakee said. "As I got taller, I had to work on it and adapt to my wingspan. I had to work on my dribbling and driving to the hoop."
That hard work paid off. Before his freshman basketball season, head coach Kevin Miller said that he wanted Zakee to play with the varsity at tryouts. He was shocked.
"At first I thought it was a joke," Zakee said. "But once tryouts came and it was the JV and the varsity together, he told me I was going to be with the varsity team."
That was an adjustment for Zakee. He had the height to play down low, but he was also thin. That made playing against juniors and seniors a lot more difficult, especially as a player that was used to dominating at the middle school level.
Zakee and the Eagles went on to put together a solid season. They finished 12-11 and had a 5-2 record in their region. But to the standards of Scott's Branch basketball, it wasn't good enough.
While the boys were floating around .500, the girls team at Scott's Branch was making a run towards a state championship. The Lady Eagles claimed a title and pushed Zakee and the boys to follow in their footsteps.
"Seeing the girls make it to that stage and actually win the whole thing gave us more motivation to get there," Zakee said. We had the talent, but we had to come together as a unit."
So, the Eagles got to work.
One of the biggest steps was having Tariq Coard move back to Summerton. He led a junior class that had some crucial pieces to the puzzle with Ike Washington. Then there was Zakee and the sophomore class with the likes of Montrez Sinkler and Tyler Kind. Behind that group was a young point guard in freshman Randy Gibson, while an experienced senior in Anavious Stukes provided leadership.
With all of that talent and a new head coach in Stephen Nelson, Zakee knew this team was capable of making a run at a state championship. Everyone outside of Scott's Branch? Not so much.
"We had people that weren't so confident in us because we had a lot of people in and out of Summerton that thought we couldn't make it to the big stage. We just proved people wrong the whole season," Zakee said. "I believe the word for that run was just excitement. Throughout the whole season we worked so hard. Not just in practice, studying and learning everything and adapting to coach Steve."
The Eagles made a playoff run and faced off against Great Falls for the 1A title game in Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. The game was a back-and-forth slugfest. It eventually came down to the free throw line at the end and the Eagles fell just short, losing 73-71.
Despite the loss, the Eagles were determined. Most of the team was coming back for another run and Scott's Branch was the favorite in 1A as the calendar turned to January 2021.
"We liked it. It felt great knowing that we were starting to get some recognition. We still had a few people that thought we weren't going to be able to make it back, but it felt good," Zakee said. "We went from the underdogs to being on top, but we couldn't get big heads and think that just because we're on top doesn't mean we can't be beat. We had to have the mindset of working hard, not underestimating anything and just playing our game."
The Eagles didn't have a chance to underestimate their opponents because every team on their schedule was determined to take down the top dog. Scott's Branch had to fight tooth and nail to get back to the 1A title game, but they did. The Eagles made the trip down to Aiken to face off against Southside Christian.
"When we got to the big stage, it was different," Zakee said. "We hadn't played someone like that all year, someone that had the kind of height that they had."
Scott's Branch ran into a buzzsaw in Southside Christian. The undefeated Sabres were led by 6'10" senior Ian Thomson and the Eagles didn't have an answer for a player with that king of height. The Eagles ended their season with a 66-45 loss.
Losing a second straight state championship game was a devastating blow, but it wasn't the only adversity Zakee and the Eagles would face in the offseason.
During the spring, Nelson was hospitalized with an illness, leaving Zakee and the returning players in a state of limbo. Zakee didn't really know what Nelson's status was in the offseason, so he had to take over as a leader to make sure the team continued to work over the spring and summer.
"That was a lot because we didn't know what was going on. We knew he was sick, but we didn't know how bad it was," Zakee said. "During the whole process, I just had to make sure my teammates calmed down and focused on what the plan was for this season.
"It was kind of tough not knowing if we were going to have coach Steve, but we kept our composure and made sure that, no matter who the coach was, we were ready to come in and do what he said and do what we've been doing with coach Steve for the last few years to get back to the big stage and hopefully win it for him."
Eventually, Scott's Branch landed on a new head coach, but it wasn't a stranger to the program. The Eagles welcomed Miller back into the head coaching role, which took some pressure off Zakee.
"It gave us a lot of confidence," Zakee said of Miller taking over the head coaching job again. "We already know what to expect playing for coach Miller and it won't be too hard to adapt to anything."
While Nelson isn't quite ready to get back into coaching, he is out of the hospital and was able to come to Scott's Branch to watch the Zaxby's Tip-Off Classic to open the season.
Now Zakee has two goals in mind. The first of which, is winning a title.
"We start talking about the state title during the offseason," Zakee said. "We're always talking about it, making sure that's a goal for us. We're really just grinding like we have, but more intense. We're doing more studying and there are no distractions. We're focused."
Zakee's second goal is settling is future on the basketball court. He's used to making a run for a title, but wading into the world of college basketball is a brand new challenge, especially when coming from a smaller school like Scott's Branch.
Zakee has interest from programs like Murray State, College of Charleston and Claflin, but hasn't received any official offers yet. He hopes to start having those offers come in as he makes one final push for a ring.
"It's been crazy. Knowing that I have a couple of coaches from these different schools that want to recruit me, I have to make my decision. It's hard because it's a lot of tough schools where I could see myself playing and being a next level player," Zakee said. "It feels good knowing that I have schools like that reaching out and wanting me to be a part of their program. Coming from a small school, we don't always get a lot of recognition."
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