From an early age, Ponchel was never seen without a basketball or his family. But there was one family member who was always there no matter how far the drive, what day of the week or how much snow was on the ground. It was Ponchel’s grandmother, Kathy Garcia.
Rightfully titled as Ponchel’s No. 1 fan, Garcia never missed a game. Whether it be the Upward hoops game Ponchel played in when he was four, AAU basketball with the Mansfield Tigers from seventh grade on or a high school game for the South Central Trojans, Garcia was there.
Until she wasn’t.
Garcia was diagnosed with breast cancer before Ponchel’s junior season at South Central High School, but lost her courageous, hard-fought battle with the illness. All of a sudden, Ponchel’s No. 1 fan was no longer there.
“She was indescribable,” Ponchel said. “She was just always there. She never missed a game. It was amazing. She just loved me and all of her grandchildren more than anything in the world. She was so supportive.”
Playing with a heavy heart, Ponchel went on to help the Trojans to a historical season, winning their first Firelands Conference championship in 15 years. The Trojans ended with a 17-7 record a year after posting an 18-win season, the most since the 1996-97 season when the Trojans won 19. Ponchel scored 353 points that season in the absence of his No. 1 fan.
“She wouldn’t have wanted it to affect me on the floor,” Ponchel said. “So I just tried to overcome it. There wasn’t anything I could do once it happened so I tried to move past it and realize she wouldn’t want me to be upset or change anything. She was just incredibly special.”
It was a magical season for both the Trojans and Ponchel. A staple in the South Central gymnasium, Garcia was pretty much an honorary member of the team from Day 1. Showing off her cooking skills, it wouldn’t be a normal week if the Trojans didn’t enjoy a home-cooked meal from Grandma Garcia. So it was no surprise when the entire Trojan team showed up in support of Ponchel upon her death.
“It had a huge impact on me just because I wanted to play well for her and make her proud,” Ponchel said. “But it really brought our team together. My teammates were at all of the funeral events for her because she was like a part of our team. She cooked meals for us and was always there. Her death brought our team even closer together and we were able to come out with a championship.”
Here we go again
After the Trojans won the Firelands Conference championship, the team still carried some very high expectations. Heading into the 2016-17 season, they graduated quite a class and welcomed the return of Ponchel and a loaded freshmen class. Just as Ponchel was about to start his senior year, he received even more devastating news. His mother, Sandy Ponchel, had been diagnosed with lymphoma.
Expecting his summer to be full of basketball and preparing the Trojans for a repeat, Ponchel was now faced with another loved one fighting for her life. Sandy underwent chemo treatments right away and finished them just a couple of games into her son’s senior basketball season.
Ponchel found an even bigger support system during this troubling time.
“We did an event at the beginning of the year where we sold t-shirts,” Ponchel said. “The whole team wore them to shoot arounds before the game and the community has been incredibly supportive. It made me realize just how close this community is and how caring they can be.”
Though his grandmother was always his No. 1 fan, his mother did her best to fill in.
“Even if I have a terrible game, she is always going to say I played great,” Ponchel said with a laugh. “I could go 0-for-10 and she would still be just as proud of me. She means a lot to me and has been a huge help going through adversity. At the end of the day, I know it is just a game and family is the No. 1 thing that matters.”
Sandy, who is now in remission, noticed a change in her son in the past two years.
“I think he doesn’t take a single day for granted anymore,” Sandy said. “He appreciates everyone in his life so much more and is thankful for all of the support. He appreciates the relationship he has with his parents more. He values the time he has with us more because that time he lost his grandmother was a very difficult time for him and everyone.”
With a new outlook on life and a final season to leave a mark on the South Central program, Ponchel entered his senior season with 733-career points. He had a legitimate shot at becoming the fifth player in South Central history to reach the 1,000-career point milestone.
After averaging 14.4 points a night through the first 17 games of the season. Ponchel entered an away game last week at Plymouth needing just 26 points to reach 1,000. He scored 25 in a 64-63 win and returned home sitting at 999-career points with a Saturday night home game against Edison the following evening.
The Chargers came out and double-teamed Ponchel holding him scoreless over the first two quarters. In the third, Ponchel gathered the ball on the wing, began to dribble to his left and took off towards the hoop. His floater in the lane was a bit off, but he gathered his own miss and laid it in for a bucket and his 1,000th-career point. He became the first player since Doug Dendinger in 1997-98 — a year before Ponchel was born — to reach the milestone.
“It means a lot,” Ponchel said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Coach (Brett) Seidel. It is crazy to think that it hasn’t happened in 19 years and all of those guys before me are some of the best athletes to ever come out of this school. It is just crazy to think about.”
Seidel, a 1,000-point scorer himself, is second on South Central’s all-time scoring list and the head coach of the Trojans since 2009.
“It is not an east feat to accomplish,” Seidel said. “In this day and age, you almost have to play four years of varsity to get it. He has been fortunate to be able to come in and be talented enough to play as a freshman. That really helped and he has had some nice players around him that have complimented his game. Defenses couldn’t just focus in on taking him away because we had other kids who could score the ball too.”
Ponchel joins Dendinger, Ryan Teglovic, Seidel and South Central’s all-time leading scorer Tom Kramb as the only five players in South Central history to reach the milestone. But Seidel sees something in Ponchel he never saw on a basketball floor.
“He can score the basketball in so many ways and he has one of the best pull-up jumpers I have ever seen,” Seidel said. “He goes full speed then stops on a dime and pulls up and drills a jumper. He is just a very special talent.”
For Sandy, it is just the icing on the cake to see her son achieve such greatness on the basketball floor.
“I am so very proud I could cry,” Sandy said. “This kid has been through so much and the most amazing thing is that even though he went through everything with his grandmother then me, he has kept his grades up. Then he kept his dedication to basketball and always putting in the hard work in practice. I am one proud mom.
“I think it is pretty exciting just to know he is up there with those great athletes. It is just a great achievement for him to even be categorized with them.”
Still more ball to play
With the pressure of the milestone behind him, Ponchel and the Trojans switch their focus to the sectional tournament. With an 11-8 record, the Trojans drew the Crestline Bulldogs in the opening round, a team they beat earlier in the season. While their record isn’t exactly what they expected, the Trojans and Ponchel are excited for a second season.
“We think we can get out of our sectional for sure and then we would run into St. Peter’s who is a great basketball team and it will take a flawless game,” Ponchel said. “We haven’t meshed as well as we had wanted to this season and we thought we would have about half of the losses as we do right now but that comes with the experience and learning how to play with each other. But we are playing great at the right time so it should be a run ride.”
As for Ponchel, he is hoping he has left a lasting legacy on the program.
“I want to leave another number in this gym,” Ponchel said. “My freshman year we were 7-15 and terrible then we improved the following year and got second in the league then we won the FC when I was a junior. I just want to leave a legacy of being someone who helped this program turn a corner and establish a winning tradition.”
The Trojans have three regular-season games left to play before the March 1 sectional showdown with Crestline. While Ponchel’s No. 1 fan may not be in the stands, she likely will not miss this game; she will have the best seat in the house.