The end was not pretty for the Servite boys’ basketball team.
Then it became something special.
Minutes after they suffered an unbelievable, heart-breaking loss to visiting Esperanza in a CIF-Southern Section Division III-A quarterfinal playoff game last week, a defeat that ended their season and, for some, their high school careers, the Friars gathered as a team one last time in Senior Square.
Many players still had fresh tears streaming down their cheeks, some could barely stand up straight they were in such anguish, but they composed themselves long enough to recite the Hail Mary in front of a hundred or so members of the student body, who had just poured their own sweat and energy into the jam-packed gymnasium.
“It’s about a brotherhood here,” says Coach John Morris, himself struggling to compose himself after his team gave up a four-point play with 1.8 seconds left and lost 62-61.
The Friars then pulled themselves together once more, wrapped their arms around each other and sang the school’s fight song.
“It’s not just about the team, the guys on the team,” Morris says. “We’re a school that prides itself in the brotherhood of Servite. We do this together.”
The playoffs are supposed to be a time to shine for the Friars.
They’re routinely overmatched in Trinity League play by Mater Dei, annually one of the top boys’ basketball programs in the nation, and this season were also no match for Orange Lutheran, Santa Margarita and St. John Bosco.
The Friars made it all the way to the semifinals last season, but lost by five points to Brea Olinda. They had an opportunity to continue their season in the Southern California Regionals last March, but were the only team of the final four not selected to participate. The two previous years, Servite’s season ended in the quarterfinals.
Servite looked in good shape for another trip to the semifinals and a date with top-seeded Beverly Hills, building a double-digit first-half lead against Esperanza and maintaining a nine-point cushion at the half. Even after the Aztecs began slicing into the lead and trailed by one at the start of the fourth quarter, the future looked optimistic when Servite stretched the lead back to six points in the final minutes.
Things looked even better when the Friars went to the free throw line with a two-point lead and 22 seconds left on the clock, but Trevor Treinen left the door open when he made 1-of-2, keeping the lead at three.
Esperanza missed on a drive without about five seconds left, ran down the offensive rebound and then got the ball to sophomore Kezie Okpala, who was fouled as he drained a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left. Okpala then made the free throw, leaving the Friars to heave a desperate shot that was well off the mark at the buzzer, sending them to one of the most heart-breaking defeats in program history.
“I feel bad for the seniors, they gave us four years, but that’s life,” Morris says. “Unfortunately, [Esperanza] made the play at the end of the game, but you’ve got to get yourself up tomorrow, get out of bed, get your schoolwork done, take whatever tests or quiz you’ve got, and that’s life.”
The Friars learned a lot about life with the loss, but they also demonstrated a few things. Most notably, nothing can overcome school pride and the bond of brotherhood.