Basketball season was important to Luke Pierce. But it wasn't nearly as important as other things in his life last winter.
The Northern Lehigh junior played this season while watching his mother battle through her final days before cancer took her life shortly after the season ended.
He played the season with a heavy heart and a lot on his mind. But he still performed well enough to lead his team to a 20-win season and earn an All Colonial League First Team selection as well as this year's TIMES NEWS Player of the Year.
"Playing with my team and having such good teammates, caring teammates, really helped me get through this year," Pierce said. "Knowing what the disease was from the start, I could have chosen to put my head down and give up hope. That's been a huge factor throughout my mom's struggle was to choose hope. Anything can happen at any time, which is a main theme of basketball as well."
Pierce led his team in scoring this season at 12.2 points per game. He also led the Bulldogs in blocked shots with 36. He was second on the team with 156 rebounds, but his boxing out helped his friend Caleb Johnson pull down 325 boards.
His presence in the paint was only part of what made him such an asset to the team. He dished out 25 assists while turning the ball over 27 times, which are respectable numbers for a big man.
But Pierce was no regular big man. He did it all for the Bulldogs.
"When you have someone 6-foot-7 that can shoot the ball the way he does and looks to make his teammates better and leads us in scoring, it's just so valuable," said Northern Lehigh head coach Jeff Miller.
Pierce could play any front-court position for the Bulldogs. With 6-4 Johnson and 6-5 Josh Landsberger able to control the paint, Pierce often stepped outside to take some jump shots. He made two of his five three-point attempts this year.
He developed confidence handling the ball years ago when youth summer league coaches allowed him to play point guard. And he always took pride in hitting shots.
"Even when I was younger," Pierce said, "I never wanted to leave a gym with people thinking the only reason I scored is because I'm bigger than everyone else."
Pierce earned a spot on Northern Lehigh's varsity team as a freshman and became a starter as a sophomore. This year he became a fixture.
"He played pretty much every minute of every game as long as he wasn't in foul trouble or anything like that," said Miller.
With three of five starters coming back next year, including all three big men, the Bulldogs should be one of the area's top teams again next season with potential to bring home some titles.
Pierce and his teammates felt disappointment at not winning a championship this year. They fell just two wins short of a league playoff berth before taking third place in District 11 Class AAA to earn a trip to states.
While Pierce was happy with his individual accolades this year, he'd give them all back for another shot at a title.
"My goal in the beginning of the year was to win a championship," he said. "I didn't have my heart set on any individual goal.
"It was the same thing with everybody on our team. Individually none of us are really stand out players, but as a team we perform well together. None of us want to go out there and be a superstar. We're all very humble about our basketball abilities. All we want to do is win games."
Pierce enjoyed being part of this year's 20-6 team, one of few teams in school history to get to 20 wins.
Pierce's courage through his mother's illness was something his teammate's fed off of. Through it all he was still able to practice and play with heart and intensity this season.
"He was an inspiration to everyone on the team," said Miller. "Not only from the basketball end of things, but just for what he went through and how strong he was through everything.
"It's nothing that any 17-year old should have to go through. Just the way he handled it spoke volumes about him. Our coaches vs. cancer nights meant so much to everybody."
The team's 20 wins were one part of the enjoyment of this season for Pierce. The best part for him was that his mother, Denise, was there for the whole thing. She fought her disease longer than doctors predicted she could. She even found the strength to come out and cheer on her son and his teammates a few times during the season.
"Her being able to know the results of our games and even being able to come to our games really meant a lot to me," Luke said. "She got to come and see me have a successful year. I really played this whole year just for her."