AYA boys’ basketball captains gain valuable perspective
Photos: Michael Sudhalter
Joe Schwartz shoots from the paint during AYA’s 64-54 win over Dallas ISD Sunset Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

By Michael Sudhalter

As the Akiba Yavneh Academy (AYA) boys’ basketball program pursues its third State Championship in seven seasons, Bulldogs Senior Co-captain Sam Rael realizes the team is representing something beyond just the Lone Star State.

“The war in Israel has brought not only our team much closer but also non-Jewish teams we play who have shown support, empathy and true gratitude,” Rael said. “The majority of the teams we play have been incredibly respectful of our faith and have even been known to ask questions about it.”

Rael was moved by the fact that these opponents show respect when AYA plays “Hatikvah” after “The Star Spangled Banner” before each game.

“I have been able to teach athletes my religion and play through the challenges because of my religion,” said Rael, the son of Marnie and Graham Rael.

Fellow Senior Co-captain Joe Schwartz said watching the atrocities that happened on Oct. 7 has brought both unity and perspective to the basketball program.

“It allowed us to take a step back and realize that basketball is such a small part of our lives and we are playing for something bigger than that,” Schwartz said. “I feel like most of the time the other schools respect our faith and are genuinely kind toward us. After our first game of the season (against Waco Live Oak Classical), we made a circle with the other team. They told us they stand with us and Israel and they really look at us as role models.”

Both Rael and Schwartz plan on taking gap years in Israel in 2024-2025 and pursuing college after that.

Rael and Schwartz were eighth graders when AYA won its second Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) State Championship in 2020. Technically, the first championship was earned in 2018, when the school was Yavneh Academy (before the merger with Akiba Academy).

Rael’s older brother was on the 2020 State Championship team, coached by David Zimmerman, who is also AYA’s athletic director. Rael averaged a team-best 18 points, along with five assists, four rebounds and 3.5 steals through two games.

“Watching my brother win State was very motivating and proud,” Rael said. “I saw how much hard work they had to put in to win State.”

Schwartz, the son of Batsheva and Gary Schwartz, is averaging 10 points, four assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

Sam Rael shoots a jumper from the corner during AYA’s 64-54 win over Dallas ISD Sunset Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

Zimmerman is grateful for the leadership of his captains this season. The team split its first two games, with a 64-60 loss to Waco Live Oak Classical and defeating Dallas ISD Sunset, 64-54. After that, they competed in a tournament in Baltimore against Jewish schools from across the United States.

“Sam and Joe have grown up at AYA,” Zimmerman said. “They represent everything right about a Bulldog student athlete. They work hard in the classroom and on the court. They are true leaders and it has been such a pleasure to coach them and watch them grow into the mensches they have become.”

Rael said he’s learned a great deal from Zimmerman and his coaching staff over the past four years.

“Coach Zimmerman has had many different teams throughout the years and I’ve learned there are going to be challenges,” Rael said. “But it is how you build and respond to reach that dream end goal. It is a big commitment to lead the new players, explain the traditions in our program and also give them (constructive) criticism to build them up.”

Schwartz, who earned All-District honors last season, said he admired the captains over the past three years and is glad that he has stepped into that role.

“I feel like we always have a good chance to win State because of how much work we put in every day,” Schwartz said. “I’ve learned over the years from the coaching staff that any type of success takes hard work and sacrifice.”

Last season, the Bulldogs lost to eventual State Champion, Lubbock Christian, in the state semifinals. In 2021-2022, they lost to Hill Country Christian by just seven points in the State Championship game.

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