Mike Palmer knows his legacy rests squarely on tonight’s basketball game at Northeast.
The Raiders’ senior believes, fairly or unfairly, that his distinguished career would be lacking if he didn’t win a playoff game.
When he takes the floor at 6 p.m. against Berrien in the opening round of the GHSA Class AA playoffs, Palmer will play in his seventh state playoff game between his basketball and football careers. And he has yet to win a playoff game.
“It hurts,” Palmer said. “It’s not like we don’t try. But for some reason, we don’t get the victory. It’s hard not to think about all of the (playoff losses). I don’t want to, but I do. We’ve won region championships, but we haven’t been able to win the playoff games.
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“I’m still more confident and have more experience. This is my last opportunity.”
Palmer is only a part of the most recent years of a long drought at Northeast. The Raiders will play in their fifth straight state playoffs, but they haven’t won a playoff game since 1994. They have won two playoff games total since 1987, the year they won a state championship. Palmer said he honestly believes this team can break that streak.
“We’re hungrier this year than I think we have been,” said Palmer, who was also a four-year starter at quarterback. “This is my last chance, but the younger guys seem even hungrier.”
The Raiders were hard to peg prior to the season given the high level of unknowns with the program. Alum Kerry Sandifer was entering his first season as the team’s head coach. The Raiders lost post player, and one of the top recruits in the area, Marvelle Harris to a prep school. Other standouts from the past few teams were also gone.
Palmer and forward Travis Sherman were the only two returning players with substantial in-game experience.
They added Dante Gastin, a talented junior guard from Rutland, who already had a tight bond with Palmer from AAU basketball. The rest of the supporting cast was filled by players already in the program who were ready to step into key roles like Denzel Council, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who was forced to play in the post due to Harris’ departure.
“I think everybody on the team bought into their roles,” Sandifer said last week. “Everybody listened to what we said, and we got off to a good start.”
The centerpiece was Palmer, who evolved his role from table-setting point guard to big-time scorer.
Palmer scored at will in middle school, when he would square off with rival Matthew Brabham and the two would regularly score more than 30 points each when facing each other.
“Mike has always been a great scorer, but he didn’t really try to score when he got to Northeast,” Brabham said. “He got the ball to the scorers. Now, they need him to score, and he has scored.”
Palmer averages more than 20 points per game and is the player with the ball in his hands at the end of the game.
“I coached some good players, but he is about as good as I’ve seen as a guard,” Sandifer said. “He’s an excellent leader, and he can do whatever we need him to do: score, play defense, run the offense.”
Under Palmer’s leadership, Northeast (26-2) finished the region schedule undefeated. The Raiders’ only loss came by four points to Beach, a AAAAA team, while Palmer was winning the MVP of a football all-star game.
They suffered their first loss as a complete team Saturday, when Henry County beat them in overtime to win the Region 4-AA championship.
“It was a big motivator for us,” Palmer said. “It might be the best thing that could happen. Because we can now refocus and get ready for the playoffs.”
Palmer said he thinks tonight’s game will be a little emotional for him, being the final game in his home gym — barring an upset by Pierce County over Laney.
“I hope my last game isn’t in our gym, because that means we won our playoff game,” he said. “That’s the biggest goal right now.”