SAN JOSE — The Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish graduated two starters from last year, lost two more to transfer and dropped nine of 10 games from Jan. 8 to Feb. 6, yet on Friday, they’ll be appearing in their first CCS Open Division Championship Game in program history.
With seniors working their tails off and underclassmen adjusting to the grind of the WCAL, a team that’s been under the radar for the entire year will now have a chance to prove itself on one of the Bay Area’s biggest stages come Friday night, thanks to Wednesday’s 72-65 win over a Menlo-Atherton team that had entered on a 20-game win streak.
Even without the skill that had been on the roster the prior two seasons, there’s been a different aura around this team that hadn’t been there before.
“This team’s not as talented as last year or the first year, but it’s really the guys that have bought in to the coaching and do whatever it takes to win,” third-year head coach Sean MacKay said. “It’s wonderful as a coach to see kids that work so hard. They’re great kids and they’re coachable.”
The hustle and heart the Irish play with was on display in the second half at neutral-site Independence High School, where they played a dominant third quarter to open up a lead as wide as 14 points, then shut things down in the fourth after the Bears cut the lead to six. Five of James Beckwith’s team-high 18 points were quickly followed up by consecutive put-backs from Oisin McCormack to give Sacred Heart Cathedral (12-14) a 61-51 lead, the start of an 8-0 run that would effectively put the game away.
McCormack has made the most of his lone season playing for the Fightin’ Irish, after playing soccer as a freshman, then not playing over the next two seasons — being cut from the program as a sophomore and never getting a chance as a junior due to hip injuries.
“We’ve all paid our dues,” he said. “The difference from last year’s team is we all love each other and we all mold well together.”
He and Oscar Cheng, Sacred Heart Cathedral’s 6-foot-8 starting center, helped put the game away against a fourth-seeded M-A team that typically guards the post well, but was out-rebounded 30-19 in Wednesday’s semifinal game.
“Oscar and I have a good bond together,” McCormack said. “We always joke around about who can get the most rebounds.”
McCormack had the clear advantage over his teammate on the boards Friday night, collecting a game-high 16 boards (six offensive) to Cheng’s four, but all nine of Cheng’s points came in the second half at critical junctures.
His first basket was sandwiched between a pair of Cedric Reed Jr. threes as the Irish went up 48-36 on a 10-0 run, and the second came with a foul to put eighth-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral up 54-40 with 2:56 left in the third. His final four points were split by a Beckwith 3-pointer, but the last two of those made it 67-54 and effectively killed any chances Menlo-Atherton (24-4) had of coming back.
Reed scored 18 and McCormack scored 11, spearheading the efforts of the Irish seniors, but Elijah Flowers shouldn’t be forgotten. He scored just two points, but he had six assists and five rebounds.
“They’re all constantly around the ball on deflections,” MacKay said of his seniors, a group that also includes Lawvan Johns, who scored six points off the bench, and Miles Bow.
What’s really helped the Irish reach the next level, though, is the performances of two underclassmen. Junior Kori McCoy, who transferred from El Cerrito and has recently overcome personal tragedy, scored a game-high 19 points, and freshman Ray John Jackson scored seven off the bench in a second quarter, where the team had their highest output of the night by scoring 23 in eight minutes. Jackson’s and-1 in the final seconds of the half gave the Irish a 38-34 lead going into the break after the Bears had gone on a 10-2 run.
“The seniors have all been vouching for me to play more,” said Jackson, who started the year on the JV team and was called up in late December despite being injured earlier in the month. “Their confidence is helping me succeed.”
Time has also helped Sacred Heart Cathedral figure things out, as Jackson and McCoy have figured out the system as the year has gone by.
“The WCAL grind for them is new, so it’s taken them longer than teams that have veterans,” MacKay said.
With all of those pieces coming together, the Irish look nothing like the team that had dropped eight of nine in January, including losses of 20, 44 and 28 points.
“We went through that rough patch in January and were kind of discombobulated as a team from top to bottom,” McCoy said. “We had a meeting and said, ‘This is it, it’s the last time we’re all going to play with each other, so let’s make it special.’”
They certainly have made it special. It took a while for the results to really show after that meeting — the Irish dropped their next four games after, though all were competitive — but the team has now reached heights that the program hasn’t seen before. The 2013 and 2014 teams were both bounced in the Open Division semifinals, and the program hadn’t been back since. On Friday, they became the first eighth seed to win an Open Division quarterfinal, and they doubled down on Wednesday by snapping the section’s longest winning streak, and it can be traced back to the changes that came in mid-January.
“We had to work on cutting down turnovers and do a better job defending,” MacKay said. “We had to re-invent practices because even though we were still teaching the same stuff, the players needed to see something different.”
They certainly defended well on Wednesday, allowing eight points in the third quarter and keeping Menlo-Atherton at bay until a late rush cut the lead to eight with 1:21 left and a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer provided the final score. Nick Tripaldi scored 12 in the first half but was held to just a pair of second-half free throws after the break, Trevor Wargo scored all of his nine on first half 3-pointers and Will Beasley scored just two of his 11 in the second half. M-A point guard Justin Anderson, a Division I football prospect, was held to two points all night and fouled out with 7:19 left.