St. Ignatius boys basketball bonds over trip to Taiwan

On the night courts of Taipei, the young St. Ignatius Wildcats came together

The St. Ignatius boys’ basketball team visits the Dalongdong Baoan Temple in Taipei. (Courtesy / St. Ignatius Basketball)

It was just past 11 p.m. on July 5 when St. Ignatius sophomore Rory Kennealy arrived at Xinsheng Park, just south of a bend in the Keelung River in northern Taipei. Nearly 100 people gathered around the edges of the two, tree-lined basketball courts. He’d grown up playing pickup, but didn’t know what to expect.

Hopeful pickup players crowded the sidelines, some standing, others with folding chairs, waiting their turn for one of the legendary late-night, 3-on-3 pick-up runs, when Kennealy and 12 other St. Ignatius basketball players and five coaches arrived. The 10 teams ahead of the Wildcats gave way. They wanted to see what the American high schoolers had.

Having lost four top players from their Central Coast Section Open Division playoff team, the St. Ignatius boys’ basketball team was on the last night of an eight-day trip to Taiwan. After playing seven games in five days against some of the best prep teams in Asia, the three-hour night run was a final test for a team that will be decidedly younger next time they take the court.

“The biggest thing for me,” said head coach Rob Marcaletti, “was that none of them were scared of the moment.”

The trip — which came four months after St. Ignatius placed third in the CCS Open Division playoffs — was the Wildcats’ third trip abroad over the last three summers. It was the second centered around the Song Shan Cup in Taipei, an eight-team tournament broadcast on Fox Sports Taipei, with games played in front of over 1,000 spectators.

The previous trips — including Argentina last summer — were more about experiencing new cultures and broadening horizons. With three sophomores on the team, this trip had a different feel.

“This was all business,” said incoming senior point guard Kourosh Kahn-Adle.

The team arrived on June 28, and after some sightseeing, played an exhibition against the Nike Under-20 All-Star team on June 30 before the tournament began. Having lost a pair of All-City scorers in Neal Begovich (headed to Stanford as a walk-on) and Wrenn Robinson, along with wings Sam Nangle and Garrett Cason to graduation, Marcaletti looked to Kahn-Adle for leadership. He’d played sparingly behind Robinson, and before that, Darrion Trammell, now at City College of San Francisco.

“This was an opportunity for him to kind of grow up,” Marcaletti said.

In the opener against Neng Ren Home Economic and Commercial Vocational High School, Kahn-Adle scored 35 points in a 97-92 win. Two games later, St. Ignatius suffered a resounding, 36-point defeat at the hands of Fukuoka Daiichi High School — the top team in Japan, and, Marcaletti reckons, a team that would be among the top three in California.

Daiichi featured a 1-2-2 zone and pressed three-quarters. They pushed the ball in transition and played up-tempo — a jarring change for the Wildcats — in the first of three straight losses. St. Ignatius had to put players in unfamiliar spots, and players who weren’t used to being shooters or drivers had to step up as Kahn-Adle got double-teamed.

“We started out the tournament a little bit slow,” Kennealy said. “Over time, coach said he didn’t really care about winning or losing. He just wanted us to come together and be a better team this year, chemistry-wise.”

Incoming seniors Kahn-Adle, Daniel Webster and Danny Ryan began taking their younger teammates aside, counseling them during time outs and offering advice.

“You could see them have their arm around them, basically educating them on the whole experience and having to navigate some of this adversity,” Marcaletti said. “That part was pretty cool to see.”

“Their confidence grew a ton,” Kahn-Adle said.

After winning two of the final three games to finish fourth, with Kahn-Adle taking home top-five player honors and Malcolm McCray Hill named All-Tournament, St. Ignatius faced a 9:50 a.m. flight back to San Francisco on July 6. Marcaletti learned on the trip two years ago — a trip which included Robinson and Begovich — that the night runs were the best way to tire the team out so they’d sleep on the 11-hour flight. He had also met local pickup legend named J-Love. Before the team left San Francisco late last month, Marcaletti texted J-Love on WeChat, asking if the pickup run would be going off on the last night of the trip.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” J-Love texted back.

“From past players, I’d heard that they did the night courts the night before they left, but I didn’t really know what I was in for,” Kennealy said.

After a 10-minute walk from the Imperial Hotel, the three sophomores — Kennealy, Ryan Conroy and GianCarlo Rivera — took the court for their first game, and started hearing trash talk in perfect English.

“We all looked at each other as they’re talking in English like, ‘Wait, what?’ Then we got into it,” Rivera said.

Over the course of three hours, Marcaletti watched, but didn’t coach. Tentative at first playing against grown men in their 20s and 30s, the three Wildcats youngsters got on a run, winning five straight games. On another of the three courts, Kahn-Adle was directing ball screens and pick-and-rolls. Young and old, all of his players were communicating.

“All the young guys that we brought completely grew up on this trip,” Marcaletti said. “To have that alone time, where there’s no distractions, where it’s just kind of all us and all basketball, there’s no other way to replicate that.”

rgorcey@sfexaminer.com

A previous version of this article stated that St. Ignatius boys’ basketball won the Central Coast Section Open Division Championship. They won the consolation game, beating St. Francis. Sacred Heart Cathedral won the Open Division title.

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