It was a few hours after
Sacred Heart Cathedral's (San Francisco)
boys basketball team lost a stinging Division III state-title game last season and Khalil James
, taking the long drive from Sacramento to San Francisco, couldn't take it. He had to move forward.
The then junior point guard broke out his phone and texted fellow junior Herman Pratt IV
"I told him that we had to make it back," James said Tuesday. "We had to work even harder in the offseason and get back and win that ring back."
James said Pratt was texting him the exact same message.
"That sort of set it in stone for us," James said.
Most would chalk the exchange up to emotion. The Irish lost an eight-point halftime advantage and eventually a 71-67 game
to Alemany (Mission Hills)
A couple months later they lost their two top scorers and rebounders — All-State 6-foot-6 front-liners Josh Fox and Taylor Johns, who combined for at least 30 points and 20 rebounds a game (now both starting at UC Riverside) — to graduation. They also graduated the team's best 3-point shooter and sparkplug Tyler Petroni.
With no one in the program who seemed capable of replacing them and no one taller than 6-2 who would fill the 2012-13 roster, the text exchange appeared to be more than wishful thinking and a defense mechanism to a painful defeat.
But here they are.
The Irish, with an unglamorous 18-11 record, are the top Division III seed heading into the Northern California tournament, which begins Wednesday. Sacred Heart Cathedral hosts the winner of San Marin (Novato)
versus Casa Roble (Orangevale)
Saturday. California boys state tournament brackets
The Irish certainly benefited from Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland)
(26-3) being pulled up from Division III to the Open Division, but even a No. 2 NorCal seed seemed highly improbable heading into the season.
But behind the gritty and versatile guard play of James (5-8), Pratt (6-0) and junior DeOndre Otis
(5-9) — all key contributors last season — the Irish have wins over NorCal Open qualifier Serra, Division I qualifiers McClymonds-Oakland, Bellarmine (twice) and Division IV co-favorite Riordan (twice).
Like their record, the Irish don't play with a lot of flash or much above the rim. But they seem to play above their means and win all the games they are supposed to, along with some they are not.
"To people outside the program, yes, I'm sure us being in this spot surprised a lot of people," Sacred Heart Cathedral coach Darrell Barbour said. "Frankly, if someone told me after last year we'd be in this position, I'd say they were a little crazy.
"But honestly, we expect to be good every year. … The top seed? It's just a number at this point. We have a lot of work to do. But we embrace the challenge."
And ignore the deficiencies, the most glaring is getting vertical. Top seeds aren't normally quite this, shall we say, squatty.
"We don't ever talk about it," Barbour said. "We never make excuses. We are who we are and we have basketball players."
Fearless ones, Barbour said. And that's allowed the Irish to largely over-achieve. Ball movement, quickness and defense helps too.
"We have tons of heart," James said. "And we play together."
He admits last season was a lot of fun watching the high-flying Johns throw down a wind-mill dunk or throwing an ally-oop pass to Fox for a slam.
"That always got the crowd and us going," James said.
"Taking charges gets us fired up," James said. "Getting a five-second count. Forcing teams into a turnover or making a steal gets us pumped too."
Not exactly SportsCenter stuff. More like John Wooden material.
Even with their lack of size, James had a strong idea early the Irish would be good. Besides the nonleague win over McClymonds, they won two straight games in the MaxPreps Holiday Classic in Palm Springs before facing Southern California power JW North (Riverside)
, which is now 28-3 and the No. 1 seed in the Southern California Division II bracket.
JW North's 6-6, 230-pound center Dorian Butler
said then what a lot of people are still saying.
"When they came out, they just didn't look like much," he said. "But man, they put it on us for a long time. They know how to play."
James, Pratt and Otis all contributed as sophomores and now each average in the 11-to-13 point range (Barbour doesn't keep statistics, he sad).
Pratt personifies the Irish, an unassuming quiet kid with a constant motor. Barbour brought him up to the varsity as a sophomore to the surprise of many. He not only brought him up, but he started him.
"What he gives us is priceless," Barbour said. "You could just see he loves the game. Offensively, he won't wow you in any single area. He just does everything well. He's very versatile. Defensively, he's a stopper. He relishes it. He guards everyone."
Including 6-8 Aaron Gordon, the nation's No. 5 recruit from Mitty.
James has earned his nickname of "Big Game James" with an uncanny knack for making big plays and shots when it counts most. He's the team's top passer, a lock down defender and verbal leader.
"The kid is tough," Barbour said. "He gets everyone up and excited and involved. He's one of those kids who is just not scared of any moment."
Otis, also a point guard, is the team's best shooter who had led the team in scoring for much of the year. Last year as a sophomore he didn't start but played critical minutes. This season every minute he's on the court is critical.
"We needed him to get even better this season and he has," Barbour said. "He and (James) really feed off one another and make each other better during practice."
Said James: "(Otis) has great handles. He's not the fastest or quickest guard in the league, but he's so good with the ball it doesn't matter. He's got a great mid-range game."
Barbour said Pratt, James and Otis are true basketball players, which is his ultimately compliment.
"All these guys are tough in the clutch," Barbour said. "They don't shy away from the moment. They just make basketball plays."