Rao is a member of the Spiece team that featured Canterbury junior Austin Hatch until Hatch was injured in a plane crash June 24 in northern Michigan. The accident took the life of his father, Dr. Stephen Hatch, and stepmother, Kimberly Hatch. Austin remains in a coma at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Mich., since the crash. To pay tribute to Hatch, the players, coach (Deric Adams) and team parents each have shirts with “Hatch” on the back and “Play Hard, Pray Harder” on the front.
“Austin is one of our brothers,” Rao said. “It's unbelievable to have to visit one of your friends in the hospital.”
Rao and Trent VanHorn are not just teammates of Hatch on the summer AAU circuit, but at Canterbury as well. The two players were competing Friday at the Gym Rats Basketball Association National Championships at Spiece Fieldhouse.
They've felt Hatch's absence on the court, off the court and especially while hanging around with friends.
“One of the neat things about Canterbury is that we're all a pretty close group,” VanHorn said. “That's a pretty big deal when you go through something like this. It's nice to have the support of all your friends.”
Just before the crash, Hatch had accepted a basketball scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, his parents' alma mater.
Taking a player of that caliber out of the lineup has made a substantial difference on the Spiece squad, but Rao and VanHorn are not counting out the possibility for a return by Hatch for the high school season.
“We're still hopeful,” Rao said. “We're definitely still hopeful. We're not counting anything out. Austin is one of the strongest people I know in faith, character and physically. When you add all that up, I'm hopeful. I'm very, very hopeful.”
The three players led the Cavaliers to the school's first sectional championship this past season. But in talking with Rao and VanHorn, it becomes apparent they want Hatch to heal as much for the fun he provides as for his incredible athletic skills.
“We joke around a lot,” VanHorn said. “We have a lot of fun.”
Both laughed at the notion that Hatch might carry himself as a superstar athlete often does.
“No, no, no,” Rao said. “Austin's extremely down to earth. He's one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet.”
It is the happy memories that get Rao and VanHorn through dark moments, such as open gyms and AAU games, where it dawns on them that their friend – not just their teammate – is not with them.
“It's tough right now,” Rao said. “Austin's one of our brothers on the team. He's always there with us. He's always playing at Canterbury. It's weird in that gym without him right now, but we're still hopeful.”