They have cried during basketball practices, and after games, and at the funeral for their beloved coach, and after their monumental victory Tuesday that sent them rocketing into the state title game. Bearing their pain, comforting their teammates and shepherding their emotions, they are one game away from winning the North Carolina 1A men’s state basketball championship.
The team at Lincoln Charter High has fought through a tragedy this season — the death of assistant coach Jamie Seitz at age 51 on Dec. 27, 2020. Seitz died of COVID-19, one of more than 518,000 Americans so far to succumb to complications from the virus.
Seitz’s son, Carter Seitz, is a senior starter at center for the Eagles. He wears No. 22, which was his father’s number in high school. Basketball has been his escape for the past 10 weeks since his father died, like it has been for many at the school’s Denver campus, 25 miles northwest of Charlotte.
“My teammates, my coaches — they’ve helped me take my mind off things a little bit,” said Carter Seitz, after Lincoln Charter’s Tuesday night, 64-54 home win over Mount Airy earned the team a spot in Saturday’s championship game against Wilson Prep.
Of his father, Seitz said: “In this gym, I feel close to him. In this gym, he’s the driving force for what our team is doing right now.”
Lincoln Charter has developed specific rituals to honor Jamie Seitz, chanting his name in huddles and often gathering at midcourt to nurture their bond.
“That’s where we really can feel Coach Seitz — in the middle of the court,” senior guard Troy Fulton said. “Because he was the heart and soul of our team.”
The team’s coach, Bradley Gabriel, has struggled with his emotions throughout this 16-2 season. He and Seitz worked together for seven years, each growing close to the others’ families.
Gabriel spoke at Seitz’s memorial service, texted with him the day before he died and has tried as best he can to be a father figure and help Carter Seitz through the season. Seitz said sometimes the team talks for the entire first hour of practices, processing their emotions.
Still, it’s been tough. In February, Gabriel decided to take several days off from both teaching and coaching. “I was mentally not in a good spot,” he said.
The coach said he “got on my motorcycle for two days,” using part of that time to have imaginary conversations with his deceased friend.
“I cleared my mind,” Gabriel said, “and talked to Jamie.”
Gabriel missed one game before returning to the team, refreshed, before the team’s playoff run that will culminate Saturday in the title game at 3:30 p.m. at Wheatmore High in Trinity, N.C. In retrospect, he said he knows what triggered his need to get away.
“I think honestly what got me was Jamie not being there on Senior Night,” Gabriel said, pausing to compose himself before continuing. “Seeing Carter have to go through that, without his dad — that just hit me wrong. ... I don’t know how to feel, really. Carter tells me he loves me every day, and I cherish those conversations. But I feel guilty sometimes. Because that should be Jamie, not me.”
‘I know Jamie is so proud’
Jamie Seitz knew almost every kid at Lincoln Charter, a public K-12 charter school in Lincoln County. He had worked there since 2009, not only coaching high school basketball and golf but also teaching elementary school PE. Jamie was my friend, like he was to hundreds. My four kids all had him as a teacher or a coach and loved him, as did everyone else. He was gregarious and kind, a 6-foot-4 coach who could have been intimidating but never was.
As the school’s chief administrator, Jonathan Bryant, said: “Jamie was the closest thing our elementary school had to a celebrity. When he walked through that building, you half-expected him to be trailed by paparazzi. He had that special sauce you want in every teacher.”
Seitz had no serious underlying health conditions, his family said. He and his wife, Liz, were married for 19 years. They had two children, Carter and Peyton, an eighth-grader at the school and a volleyball player who wears No. 22.
Liz Seitz said Jamie had told her even in the summer of 2020 that this Lincoln Charter team had the potential to win a state championship in their son’s senior year. She still sometimes speaks about her late husband in the present tense.
“I know Jamie is so proud,” she said, “of each and every person on that team.”
Sam Cogan, a slashing forward, is the team’s scoring leader at 20 points per game. “What we’re doing right now,” he said, “is all for Coach Seitz.”
Fulton is the team’s 3-point specialist. Lincoln Charter is built for quickness and speed, with 6-foot-5 Carter Seitz the only big man who plays regularly. He averages a double-double — 10.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
Calling a bluff
Liz Seitz, Jamie’s older brother Denny and several other family members have religiously attended nearly every game this season.
“First of all, it helps us to remember Jamie,” Denny Seitz said. “You can completely forget about any worries that you might have had before you walk in. And then I’m watching my nephew play a sport that he plays well and that he loves. There’s a bit of a celebration every time you walk into a game, because that was Jamie’s element. That’s where he thrived.”
It’s not that Jamie Seitz was perfect, nor that all his relationships were completely rosy. He and Gabriel would argue sometimes. In the most memorable instance a season ago, Seitz left a game shortly after the opening tipoff and didn’t come back due to a brief flare-up between the two.
“I was being really hard on Carter,” Gabriel recalled. “We had practiced something that the other team was going to do all week, and on the first play, Carter let them do it. And then he fumbled a pass and I said, ‘Get him out! I want to talk to him.’ ”
Seitz, as Gabriel recalled, protested the early substitution. He wanted his son to be left in the game for a few more minutes, letting him get into its flow.
“That ain’t right!” Seitz said, as Gabriel continued to signal that he was going to pull Carter Seitz out.
“If you don’t like it, you can just leave the bench!” Gabriel said.
So Seitz did, two minutes into the game, and didn’t come back for the rest of it. Gabriel pulled out Carter Seitz, talked to him briefly, returned him to the game and saw him “play great,” as the coach said.
That night, however, Jamie Seitz and Gabriel ate dinner together and laughed about the incident.
“You called my bluff, didn’t you?” Gabriel said. “Good for you.”
The COVID-19 mystery
Each fall, Jamie Seitz would fight off a mild case of bronchitis.
“He’d have an annoying cough for about a week,” his brother said, “but that would be about it.”
When Jamie Seitz tested positive for COVID-19 in December, the family didn’t think it would be much worse than the bronchitis. Even when he had to check into the hospital, they kept thinking he would get better.
“That’s the biggest mystery, isn’t it?” Denny Seitz said. “One person can get COVID and have mild symptoms. And another person can get it, and it ends up killing them.”
Jamie Seitz thought he would get better, too, and he and I texted several times while he was in the hospital.
“If u want an emotional uplifting positive story let me know,” Seitz wrote to me. “I will not be out of ICU for a bit and not out of hospital for awhile but right now I’m glad to be alive and have such great support from my family n little Denver NC I’m truly a ‘blessed’ individual.”
That original story didn’t turn out the way either Jamie or I had imagined, but this follow-up story on his basketball team’s success is closer to what he had in mind. The team has gone from taking a vote in late December as to whether to play at all to the precipice of a state title.
When I asked Carter Seitz a few minutes after the win Tuesday night what the happiest moment he had had since his father died, he said: “Honestly, right now. This moment right here.”
The coach above
After Tuesday’s game, Liz Seitz waited a while in the stands.
“I wanted Carter to have that moment with his teammates,” she said. “And so I didn’t come down on the court until well after the game had ended and I could see him looking for me, which was so special. And then I got to hug my kids.”
Carter, his sister Peyton and his mother embraced in a corner of the gym, underneath some pictures of previous state championship teams at the school.
“I looked up, in the middle of that hug, and there was a picture of Jamie above us on the wall,” Liz Seitz said. “Literally above us. Watching over us.”
That’s what this season has felt like for this team.
Jamie Seitz is gone.
But he’s also right there, a spirit watching over them. Or a silent presence in the midcourt huddles. Or half of the conversation on Bradley Gabriel’s motorcycle.
Seitz will be there in their hearts, too, on Saturday when Lincoln Charter plays for the state championship, when this team’s journey comes to an end. Any predictions?
“Just one,” Denny Seitz said. “No matter if it’s a win or a loss, there will be a whole lot of tears.”