Head of the class


McGEHEE — At the end of the school day, about seven McGehee basketball players could be found battling each other on the court.

Some of them have already played their final high school game. But one of them got to put on a game jersey one more time.

“I never thought I would wear this jersey again,” Zach Ellis said when he wore his red No. 35 for a quick photo shoot. He was honored as The Commercial’s Southeast Arkansas Player of the Year in boys basketball for the second straight season.

The 6-foot-4 senior forward only hopes it’s not the last time he’ll don any game jersey. Some lucky four-year or junior college has yet to land the young man who has averaged 20 more points each of the last two seasons.

But no one has offered him a scholarship yet. Pretty baffling for someone who’s ability is no longer a secret across the state.

“He’s got a 20 on his ACT, he’s got a 3.6, 3.7 grade-point average, I don’t know what else they want,” McGehee coach Jerome Pace said. “He’s going to be able to do it academically. Regardless of what he does on the court, he’s going to be able to take care of business in the class. To me as a coach, that’s the greatest selling point.”

Ellis also made his own sales pitch on the basketball court. The 6-foot-4 forward totaled 20 points, seven rebounds, two steals and 7.5 assists per game as a senior, leading the Owls to the 8-3A Conference and Region 4 championships and their second state semifinal in three years.

Ellis’ scoring average dropped three points per game from last season, but he still carried the Owls on a path to prominence with the help of three more players who averaged at least 12 points an outing.

“I feel like I had a more important role because I was a senior this year as far as scoring,” Ellis said. “I had to pick up my defense, but it was a little better this year.”

Improving his defensive play was Ellis’ goal since he won the first SEARK Player of the Year honor. Pace said the forward has done that, but it will need to be improved more on the college level.

As for his offense, Ellis knew when it was time to take over the game.

“He’s got a real high IQ,” McGehee senior guard Maurice Hudson said. “He always know what’s going on out on the court. He has an ability to get to the hole anytime he wants to.”

The Owls didn’t take Ellis’ talents for granted.

“To be real, we probably would have been third or second in the conference (without him),” Miller said. “He made everybody on the court better. He made everybody play good.”

No senior class at McGehee enjoyed as much success in five decades until Ellis’ group. They’re the first class to play basketball under Pace from seventh grade up — and he considers Ellis the leader of the group.

“A lot of these guys are two- or three-sporters, and they helped make the program successful,” Pace said. “I tell the seniors every year, leave something for the next group to measure themselves by or work toward, and they’ve done it.”

Through his contributions and accomplishments on the basketball court, Ellis has solidified his place in school history.

All he’s looking for now is to make more history in college.

“I just always felt like a winner,” Ellis said. “That’s me. Since I’ve been here in 10th grade, we won conference twice. I don’t see no more banners in basketball.”