EXETER — With about four weeks left in the regular season, the undefeated Exeter High School boys basketball team was without a key player.
Senior Jake Ross, one of the Blue Hawks' three veteran seniors who come off the bench, was feeling under the weather one week when his situation took a scary turn — his mother admitting him to the hospital after he woke up one night having trouble breathing.
Ross wound up being diagnosed with a viral infection that caused his heart to become inflamed. Entering the stretch run of a dream basketball season, sports were suddenly on hold.
"It was scary," Ross said, "but the team sent me a fruit basket ... and they got the win. I kept refreshing Twitter, seeing if we won the game or not. The team's awesome, backed me up the whole way; the coaches backed me up the whole way, and it's just been awesome coming back and being able to play for a state championship."
Exeter's versatile, 6-foot-3 forward who starred on the football team was cleared to resume basketball actives two days after senior night. His first game action in about four weeks finally arrived in the Blue Hawks' Division I quarterfinal win over Alvirne, 73-50.
Five days later, in the first quarter of Wednesday's semifinal game against Londonderry at Lundholm Gymasium, Ross' number was the first one called off the bench about three minutes in. All-State senior Kevin Henry picked up his second foul, and Ross was pressed into some early action.
He was pressed into late action, too, starting the second half after senior forward Ethan Imbimbo had to exit with an ankle injury.
"Definitely when I missed some time I was a little worried about coming back and not being as conditioned as I was when I left," Ross said. "But the guys pushed me hard in practice. I got back in shape. I hadn't played 22 minutes in a long time, but when I did, I only had one thing on my mind: I wanted to win that game. I want to win a state championship. I just kind of pushed all the heart issues aside and focused on the team goal, and that was to get the win."
Ross finished with two points, three rebounds and a pair of assists in Exeter's 62-51 win over Londonderry, a win that clinched the program's first state final appearance in 21 years. The Blue Hawks will face No. 2 Salem for the Division I title in Durham Saturday at 3 p.m.
Ross is healthy and ready for whatever workload is needed against the well-balanced Blue Devils (19-2).
"We were worried about him," Exeter coach Jeff Holmes said. "We're glad he's healthy. He's a key guy to the team."
The Blue Hawks (20-0) finished Wednesday's final four game with a 19-4 surge, erasing a once four-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Exeter has owned the final quarter of games this season. Its second unit — which includes three veteran seniors — is a big reason why.
Senior Max Rose played 22 minutes off the bench in the semifinal game with starting point guard Cam Clark battling foul trouble. Senior Nick Datillo also gave the team some good minutes as it went to work in the second half without Imbimbo, its best interior defender.
Ross, Rose and Datillo have relished their roles as key reserves, and that's one of the reason this team was able to separate from the pack during the regular season.
"Personally, I've been playing with these guys since sixth grade," Datillo said. "We've always been energetic in practice, and bringing that into the game on Saturday will be good."
"I feel like everyone on our team has confidence in everybody," Rose said. "We all know we can step up when we need to."
junior Michael Leonard has been another key rotation player for Exeter's second group. Without Imbimbo, and with Henry and Clark both limited to 18 total game minutes, the Blue Hawks were still able to put the game away, shooting 8-for-12 from the floor as a team in the fourth quarter.
"It shows a lot of maturity having three seniors come off the bench — because seniors don't like to come off the bench," Ross said. "If we put that banner up, I think we won't mind."
A banner would be Exeter's first boys basketball title in 42 years.
The Blue Hawks haven't hoisted a championship plaque since 1977, when they captured Class I. Saturday will mark just the fourth state final appearance in program history.
It will be Salem's fifth appearance in a state championship game, and first since its back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008 (both wins over Trinity). Salem also won the 1995 Class L crown, 62-57, over Winnacunnet.
Exeter lost to Matt Bonner and the Concord Crimson Tide, 73-44, in 1998, which was the program's only other trip to the championship game in Class L or Division I.
The excitement around Exeter for this one is about ready to boil over.
"It feels good to know my last game will be the championship, the state finals," Rose said. "I just really want to get one for the community."