Even back in eighth grade, Jeremy Purnell towered over his teammates and opponents on the basketball court at Selbyville Middle School. It would be that year that he would record the first in-game slam dunk of his career — the first of many to follow.
It was evident even at that point in his life that basketball was quickly becoming more than an extracurricular activity for Purnell. It was developing into an obsession, an infatuation, a passion. Now, with Indian River High School graduation looming only months away, the 6-foot, 6.5-inch all-star is preparing to take a bold step forward in what could quite possibly be the most pivotal point in his athletic career.
“Basketball is my life,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work and dedication. You have to give it everything you got.”
And the statistics would suggest he’s done just that. Despite the team’s late trip-up that denied them a bid into the state playoffs this season, Purnell led the team to an impressive finish, sealing second place behind Woodbridge in the Henlopen South conference. He ranked fifth this season for scoring in the South division, which was good enough for 23rd overall in the state of Delaware.
Purnell outscored his teammates and most opponents he faced, averaging 16.6 points per game and racking up a total of 332 points on the year. This accounted for nearly 25 percent of the Indians’ entire scoring this year.
Purnell was honored at the school’s sports banquet last week and at the state’s sports banquet in Dover last Monday for his noteworthy season, which also earned him first-team all-conference honors in the Henlopen South.
The four-year starter has managed to keep his head in the game through his high school seasons, attributing much of his development to former Indian River basketball coach Pat Kelly.
“I came up with him once I got to Indian River,” Purnell said. “He really taught me a lot. He worked us hard, but as long as you were willing to work, he was there for you. Kelly’s the one who got me hooked on hitting the weight room, too. He got me to push myself.”
Stepping in as the only freshman on the team in the 2004-2005 season was not as intimidating as one may have anticipated.
“It didn’t bother me one bit,” said Purnell. “It felt like it gave me an advantage, since I was the youngest one out there. I still had my time to come up.”
Following middle school, he fine-tuned his ball skills with a Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, the Delaware Sharpshooters, prior to his peak performance with the Indians.
This past year, Phil Mead replaced Kelly at IR, and brought to the court a very different coaching pattern than what the team was used to.
“[Kelly] and I are different when it comes to our coaching,” Mead said, “but the team adjusted well. Jeremy had a strong year and really showed leadership out there with the team.”
Keeping his focus on basketball and school work, Purnell was determined through high school not to let himself fall behind.
“You’ve got to keep your head clean,” he said. “There’s a lot of peer pressure out there.”
And this summer, Purnell said, he will continue to hit the court and the gym.
“Practice makes perfect,” he stated. “You’ve really got to get your mind and everything into it.”
In the fall, Purnell plans to enroll at Catonsville College in Baltimore County to shoot hoops and study veterinary medicine, and he’s aware that both the academics and athletic program will be vastly different from what he has grown used to at IR.
“I have academic tests coming up,” he said. “I’m going to have to really work in the classroom. Here at the high school, [in terms of basketball,] my height encouraged me to play center. When I’m off to a Division II school, my height is more like a forward or a guard, compared to the other guys. I’m going to have to work on my fundamentals. I have to improve my ball-handling skills and get more touch.”
He stated that he plans to go attend a couple of camps before the fall season rolls around. Even though the athletes he will encounter there will be performing at an advanced level compared to what Purnell is accustomed, he’s once again not worried about being the greenhorn in the herd.
“They’re not used to seeing a freshman with my body frame coming in,” he said. “So the way things are going now, everything’s looking real good.”
Shipping off, away from coaches who have assumed responsible leadership roles in his life, isn’t Purnell’s only regret in leaving IR.
“You make a lot of friends over the years,” he said. “It’ll be a little tearful at graduation. I’ve known most of these guys for over four years, and I’ve played with a lot of great guys. Looking back as the years went by, it’s just crazy.”
It’s hard to say exactly what lies ahead for Purnell at Catonsville and wherever his experience guides him. But, if that crucial day he stepped on the court in eighth grade is any indication, the future is a bright one for this talented young man.