Amidst the adversity, the struggles and the distractions, the ballers in purple simply wanted a chance.
In the three seasons since Damien last played in the boys basketball Division II state tourney, Coach Alvin Stephenson had known optimism well. This season, he could barely constrain his hopes and excitement.
After a slew of injuries and mid-season suspensions, the Monarchs had destiny in their hands on Saturday afternoon. A win over University would yield a state berth. By the end, the Monarchs went on a 21-6 game-closing run for a 57-44 win.
His seniors, including Kolin Galdiano and Crumel Mooring, led the way as Damien’s parade to the foul line turned hope into gold. The two combined for 8-for-8 shooting as the Monarchs calmly swished 10 foul shots in a row, turning a close game into a clutch victory against the talented Jr. ‘Bows. The Monarchs implemented all kinds of ways to improve and end the three-year state-tourney drought.
“Last year, we had a chance, but we collapsed against Le Jardin. The year before that, we lost to University,” Galdiano recalled of the Jr. ‘Bows team that went on to win the state title. “The last time we played at states was my freshman year.”
Today, the biggest tool turned out to be one of repetition and resilience.
Halfway through the season, with his team shooting 47 percent at the foul line, Stephenson had his team go through this routine: every player makes 25 free throws at the start of practice, and ends the session by making 25 more. Nobody goes home until the job is done every single day.
“We’d been horrible, so something had to change,” said Stephenson, who also teamed with assistant coach Jamar Miller to challenge their players in FT contests.
It was fitting, then, that seniors like Galdiano (9-for-10) and Mooring (6-for-8) came through in the final 1:45, when the streak of 10-straight free-throw makes began. Mooring wasn’t as calm as he seemed on the outside, not before or during the game.
“Honestly, I was really nervous. University is a really tough team. They work hard on every play like us. The two games we split were really close,” said Mooring, who had 10 points, three offensive rebounds, three assists and a steal.
The suspensions earlier in the season could have served as a breaking point, or an excuse for the team to surrender. Instead, they got tighter and closer.
“We stressed playing for family, playing for the pride of our school. All the years I’ve been here, these kids fight to the end. They’re always scrapping. I’d go to war with them,” Stephenson said.
Before and after games, in the lockerroom and on the bus, reserve center Michael Donley has his disco-light technology spinning colors. After the win today, the 6-foot-2, 270-pound senior had his machine light up a darkened Bishop Scanlan Gymnasium. It’s a “singing machine,” as he calls it, that his mother gave to him. He totes it around on a dolly, providing 1980s and ‘90s music to his teammates and coaches.
“My mom doesn’t use it,” Donley said. “So I bring it.”
Lindon Sevilleja, who scored 12 points in the win, does most of the song selection. The favorites include Boys2Men, Big Papa and Rebel Souljahz, but the ultimate fave is Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.”
The music is still playing for the Monarchs.