Paul McRoberts dove onto Norm Stewart Court on the floor of Mizzou Arena and erupted into a cheering, screaming, hugging mess. The 6-foot-4, 185-pound McRoberts’ greatest wish had just been granted, and he was letting it out. He let out all his frustration of coming so close the last two years. He let out his anger at being doubted. But, mostly, he let out his joy of finally reaching the mountaintop.
The Soldan boys’ basketball team had just won the Class 4 state championship last Saturday with a 55-42 win over Springfield Hillcrest. It was the first time Soldan had appeared in the state title game since 1990 and only the second time it had won it since 1981. And the Tigers wouldn’t have been here, celebrating this championship, without the brilliant play of McRoberts.
He led the team with 18 points and four steals. McRoberts, 18, was a defensive terror. The Hillcrest guards will see him in their nightmares and when they wake up they’ll check under the bed and in the closet. They couldn’t deal with him. An athletic marvel, McRoberts were flying around with a speed that was unmatched. He was jumping all over the place disrupting their offense. He would leap high into the air and grab passes the Hornets thought they could get over his head.
A tough kid, he wasn’t shy about making sure Hillcrest standout and Mizzou football uber-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham knew this game wasn’t his for the taking. When Green-Beckham got a little too frisky under the basket, it was McRoberts who went chest to chest with him. When starters Pete Sanders and Randy Holmes were on the bench in foul trouble in the second quarter, it was McRoberts who carried the scoring load and all but buried the Hornets.
He played like his hair was on fire. And the rest of the Tigers came along with him. “I had to stand up and be a leader for my team,” he says. “And I did.”
When the final horn sounded and McRoberts joined his teammates in a dog pile on the court, it was a release. The pressure had been building this season and the past two. Soldan twice before reached the final four before only to be turned away by perennial powerhouse Borgia and finish third. With nine seniors, including McRoberts, returning for their final season, this year it was championship or bust.
It wasn’t easy and coach Justin Tatum, a CBC and Saint Louis University alum, set up a schedule to test them. The Tigers played the most rough and rugged schedule in town and took some lumps. They bumped heads with top teams from New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago. And though they didn’t get the results they wanted, those lessons served their purpose. “We had our ups and downs. We didn’t look like the dominant team we were supposed to be,” Tatum says.
Soldan ended its season at 25-5 and with the championship trophy that proved so elusive. For McRoberts, it could be the end of his competitive basketball career. A dynamite athlete, he’s signed to play wide receiver for the Southeast Missouri State University football team. He was, statistically, the best wide receiver in the city during a year where there was plenty of competition. He’s thinking about walking on to the SEMO basketball team but that will come down the road.
For now, McRoberts is basking in the glow of a state title and achieving a dream that feels better than he ever imagined. And he’s doing it with his closet friends. “They’re my brothers and I love them,” McRoberts says.