QUINCY -- When Kevin Meyer was coaching the Quincy Notre Dame boys basketball team last year to a No. 1 ranking in the Class 2A state poll, he couldn't help but notice one of the team's biggest fans -- literally.
Jase Wallingford usually was in the front row. It was nearly impossible to miss his 6-foot-8 frame.
"I came to every game I could," he said. "I just missed it so much. I would be in the crowd thinking, ‘I can't believe I'm not playing.'"
Wallingford was on the team as a sophomore, but Meyer's plans to use him on the varsity as the season wore on were scuttled because of a knee injury. Wallingford then decided not to play last year as a junior because he wanted to concentrate on his first love -- baseball.
"I wanted to be 100 percent healthy so I could showcase what I could do with my pitching," he said. "After all that and I realized that the recruiting process was done, I knew that I could go and play basketball again. All the coaches who were calling (about baseball) kept asking if I played basketball. They wanted me to play a second sport.
"I missed it. It gave me an excuse to play again."
Wallingford is averaging seven points and a team-high 4.7 rebounds per game as the starting center for the Raiders, who are 16-9 entering their last regular-season game Tuesday night against Keokuk (Iowa).
He missed Saturday's victory over Liberty to make a trip to San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, where he will pitch in the fall. However, in the last five games he played, Wallingford averaged 10 points while shooting 61.5 percent from the field.
"He's doing some really fun stuff right now," Meyer said. "It's great to see him out there. I think he's having fun. He has confidence in the guys, and the guys have confidence in him."
Meyer said he didn't talk much with Wallingford last year.
"It wasn't because it was awkward," he said. "It was to avoid me begging him to come back or for him to have to answer why he's not playing."
He said he first thought Wallingford might consider coming back when he saw him before a sectional game at Stanford last year.
"Our students had a ‘white out' night, and there he was front row center behind the bench, and he couldn't have cheered any louder," Meyer said. "He was so happy. He had a big smile on his face. Right then, I thought to myself, ‘This kid loves basketball. I think there's a chance.'"
When Wallingford made the decision to return, he made one person particularly happy. His mother, Linda (Logsdon), is the all-time leading scorer at Highland High School and Culver-Stockton College.
"Mom was really sad when I told her I wasn't going to play," he said. "When I told her I was coming back, I could see it in her eyes that she was happy."
Wallingford attended several of the Raiders' open gym workouts during the summer and also trained with Matt Pugh with Pure Sweat Basketball Skills. Scraping off two years' worth of basketball rust wasn't easy.
"Shots I used to easily make with my left hand just went away," he said. "I knew I had to keep cool. I knew the more I practiced, the more it would come."
Meyer said he had expected this year's team to shoot more 3-pointers and run a motion offense, but he chose to stick with much of last year's offense when he learned Wallingford would play.
He had to be patient while Wallingford got back into basketball shape.
"The things that took the longest were the catch, collect and go up and score," Meyer said. "Now the ball's in his hand, he's bouncing and going. It took longer for our guys to get used to playing with him than it did for him to get used to playing with the guys."
Wallingford's best game was in December against Palmyra, Mo., when he had 19 points and eight rebounds in an 80-68 victory.
"That's when I knew I made a good choice," he said.
Wallingford's preparation for baseball season, however, hasn't stopped. He works out at XCEL Performance on Mondays and Wednesdays, and he throws on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
He spent last winter attracting baseball scouts, but Meyer says he's been turning heads on the basketball court this winter.
"I get coaches who ask me, ‘Who's your big guy? He could help us out,'" he said. "Then when I tell them he's a baseball player, they say, "Oh, shoot. Pitcher, right?'
"I just want to see how his confidence from basketball helps him in baseball. I can't want to see him pitch this spring."