SACRAMENTO — There was no second guessing.
There was no talk of what could’ve been or what should’ve been.
The St. Francis Sharks stayed true to their identity from the beginning of Friday afternoon’s California Interscholastic Federation Division V Championship until the final second and they were satisfied with the result. Even though it was not the one they wanted.
The dream season filled with wins, laughs and championships came to an end at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, as St. Francis fell short of its first-ever state title via a heartbreaking 47-46 loss to Rolling Hills Prep, of San Pedro, in the D-V Championship game.
The Sharks (29-3), first-time champions of the Northern California regional, were down by one with a minute to go and had a pair of opportunities to pull ahead but the Huskies (29-2), first-time champions of the Southern California regional behind legendary head coach Harvey Kitani, came up with two game-sealing stops, including the all-important final defensive stand on the last possession of the game.
St. Francis, only the third team from Santa Cruz County to play for a state championship, had the ball with 13.9 seconds left and tried to drive to the rim but R.H.P. did well to clog the lane and forced the Sharks to hoist a desperation jumper. Senior wing Ivo Lasich took the final shot but the maroon and gray’s magic had run out, as his potential game-winner missed its mark and the hundreds of St. Francis fans that made the three-hour trek from Watsonville let out a collective groan.
St. Francis head coach Ed Kelly said he never thought of taking a timeout to draw up a play on the final possession. Instead, he stuck with the usual formula which had helped his team win 23 consecutive games as well as its first Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League and Central Coast Section titles since the 2009-10 season.
“That’s what we practice. We don’t call timeout. It’s been well written,” Kelly said. “We were gonna go. They did a good job of defending the first two things that we tried.”
Several players pulled their jerseys over their faces after the final shot missed and Lasich leaned over and slapped the floor at mid-court before Kelly quickly made his way over to give him a hug and a word of encouragement.
“I told him that I love him and that we’d take that shot again,” Kelly said. “Over the course of this season, we’ve made a lot of those. Today was just the day it didn’t go down.”
Junior forward Jason Gallo had a game-high 15 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field but was the lone Shark in double figures, as the Huskies’ physical man-to-man defense bottled up the usually potent St. Francis offense. Friday marked the first time this postseason — CCS playoffs, included — the Sharks, who shot only 39.5 percent from the field, failed to score at least 60 points.
“They played really good on defense and I think that was the difference,” said St. Francis junior forward Chase Watkins, who had nine points. “The lanes weren’t there. I know it was an NBA court but it felt smaller. I don’t know if it was their defense but every time I’d drive it was clogged.”
St. Francis trailed 13-11 after a so-so first quarter but looked to be coming into its own in the second, as senior point guard Sandor Rene Rodriguez, who finished with 10 assists and six points, was dishing no-look passes and helping the Sharks outscore R.H.P. 15-7 to head into the half up six.
But the Huskies picked up their defensive intensity out of the intermission. St. Francis hit just three field goals in the third quarter as R.H.P. tied it up at 33-all heading into the final stanza.
The lead switched hands three times in the fourth before Lasich banked in a 3-pointer from the wing to give St. Francis a 46-45 lead with a little over a minute left.
But the advantage was short-lived, as Huskies sophomore guard Alex Coon came down with a rebound, diced his way through the Sharks in transition and laid in the crucial go-ahead bucket.
The R.H.P. defense did the rest, helping Kitani to his third state championship.
“[This win is] as good as any because it’s what we’re doing right now and all those other ones don’t mean anything,” said Kitani, who became only the second head coach in California to win a state championship with two different schools. “Just to be with these guys and to work and for these guys to just be great team guys, this is the one. And it will be until we play the next one.”
Koon led all Huskies with 13 points, while grabbing nine rebounds and making five assists. Freshman center J.T. Tan added 12 points and seven rebounds and junior win Alex Garcia chimed in with 11 points and seven rebounds.
Several of the Sharks were sitting on the hardwood dejected after the loss, which was their first this calendar year. But most were upbeat during the postgame press conference. The defeat was devastating but the experience, Kelly and the players said, was one none of them will forget.
“It was a blessing to be able to get this far and be the best team in St. Francis history,” Watkins said. “It’s something I’m never going to forget.”
St. Francis will look very different next year, as it will lose eight seniors to graduation: Jason Kane, Riley Scherr, Nicholas Munoz, Joseph Kovacs, Dominic Figueroa, Lasich and Rodriguez.
Watkins, Gallo and sophomore guard E.J. Kelly will be the lone returners. Coach Kelly said it was too early to look ahead to next year. He and the team were still soaking in the success of this year’s historic season.
“The emotions will hit us later on,” Kelly said. “It’s hit a little bit, mostly because I’m sad that on Monday I won’t get to spend two hours with them again … this group has been so much fun and I’ve enjoyed being with them so much. Maybe that’s the sadness. I’m not sad that we competed, that we played hard, that we had composure and that we had a lot of fun. I’m not sad about that. Probably just sad that on Monday I won’t get to spend two hours with them.”