VERDIGRIS — He is not completely sure when the feeling arrived. Maybe it was the seventh 3-pointer in a row. Or the eighth. Or the ninth. But sometime on that night in January 2006 when Rotnei Clarke dropped 55 points on Wewoka, he came to this realization: I should never miss.
All these months later, let's modify that just a bit. "I expect almost every shot to go in,” Rotnei says, with thousands of reasons for confidence. Take a recent evening when Rotnei has already made — not taken, made — 500 3-pointers. Two hundred free throws. Countless mid-range jump shots. He's lifted weights and raced through passing and ball-handling drills. The workout is approaching four hours. But now the shots aren't falling. Frustration is rising. "Are you tired?” asks Kelly Clarke, Rotnei's uncle and the Verdigris High School coach. "Yeah,” Rotnei says — and keeps shooting. This is the mindset that has turned a talented gym rat into a shooting star. And made Verdigris, a bedroom community near Tulsa along Route 66, a must-stop on college coaches' recruiting tours. If Rotnei is shooting — and he is always shooting — he should be hitting. "When he's off,” says Conley Clarke, Rotnei's father, "he takes it personal.” Off means missing three straight. Taking it personal means taking drastic measures. Earlier, after making only 92 free throws in 100 tries, Rotnei shot 100 more. With each miss, he sprinted the length of the court. Made shots merited a reward: Rotnei sprinted to halfcourt. "You learn to shoot,” he explains, "when you're fatigued.” So as he keeps missing, Rotnei keeps shooting. Pretty soon, he's found his groove: Five straight. Ten. Fifteen. "The next one's going in,” he tells himself. "The next one is good.” By now you're wondering, is the kid obsessed? Or possessed? Let's go with neither. Perhaps you're already familiar with the 6-foot, 180-pound sharpshooter who will be a senior next fall. Maybe you've heard about the astounding numbers: Fifty-five points on that night of epiphany, when Rotnei was a sophomore. Fifty-seven last season against Adair. And during the state tournament, a record-setting 60 against Vian. He averaged 20 points as a 5-foot-8, 150-pound freshman, 34 as a sophomore, almost 38 last season. Almost as gaudy are his AAU stats for Dallas-based Team Texas, playing against some of the nation's top talent. Which is why at last count, more than 2,500 recruiting letters cluttered Rotnei's bedroom. Why Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Gonzaga's Mark Few and Marquette's Tom Crean, among others, have found their way to Verdigris.
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Shooting superlativesDuring his workouts, Rotnei Clarke has achieved some astounding numbers. Among them: •Made 94 of 100 3-pointers in an exhibition for former Arkansas coach Stan Heath. •Made 74 straight 3-pointers. •Made 137 straight free throws. By George Schroeder