St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy boys’ basketball coach Richard Ciambotti raised some eyebrows when he handed out to team parents the calendar for the approaching season and it stretched into the PIAA Tournament in March.
“All the parents looked at me and kind of said, ‘This guy’s nuts,’” Ciambotti recalled.
“Most of the parents were looking around at each other asking, ‘Are you serious?’” added senior Mike Jabco. “I don’t think, really, anyone thought we were going to make it that far.”
It’s easy to understand why. The Wolves, and the school, are in just their fourth season of existence, and just their second as a varsity program.
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As it turns out, the coach knew what he was saying.
St. Joseph’s (10-14) has caught fire at the right time and is playing in the District 6 Class A semifinals against Portage (18-5) at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg.
“The players are starting to believe it,” Ciambotti said. “I’m not doing an ‘I told you so,” kind of thing, but I wanted them to know that they had it in them.”
The Wolves entered the tournament as the bracket’s lowest-seeded team at No. 10, but have already upended No. 7 seed Glendale and No. 2 Homer-Center. It has prompted professions of shock at the run by a number of people, including Jaime Baker of WTAJ-TV posting on Twitter, “I’m calling D6 Cinderella with that team.”
“We don’t feel like the Cinderella,” said senior Garrett Bastardi, who along with his teammates saw many of the Tweets of amazement last week. “We’ve trailed for one minute in the District 6 playoffs. Both games we felt like we were in control of the game and felt like we were the better team.”
The players do understand why the Cinderella moniker has arisen, however.
“We kind of like being the underdog because people doubt us and that just makes us want to play more,” said Jabco, who scored 35 points in the win over Homer-Center. “We know what we can do. We don’t think we’re Cinderella, really, because we knew we could compete with these teams. It was just a matter of showing that we could.”
It’s quite a turnaround for a team that saw just seven members of an 18-player roster from last season return, started the season 1-7 and just won its first postseason game in school history — in any sport. They were 3-11 heading into their game against Philipsburg-Osceola on Jan. 19, but starting with that game the Wolves have won seven of their last 10, including the last four straight.
“This is awesome,” said Bastardi, who averages nine points per game. “There’s nothing quite like being on a team, and being on a team that’s really firing on all cylinders. That’s what we’re doing. A month ago we knew we had this potential, but we weren’t necessarily living up to it.”
There are several reasons for the run of success.
The team has battled through a number of illnesses and injuries, but during this stretch the Wolves are now only missing shooting guard Nick Shearer. Ciambotti said Shearer could return for their next game.
Also, a lot of the losses were piled up against some pretty strong teams.
They started the season getting throttled by Bishop Carroll (22-1), which is the top seed in Class A, plays Saltsburg in the other semifinal and is the No. 8 team in the state. More losses followed to Class AA playoff teams Penns Valley and Penn Cambria, and Class AAA playoff teams Huntingdon, Hollidaysburg and Jersey Shore.
“We knew what our guys could do and what they’re capable of,” Ciambotti said. “It’s hard to classify them as (Cinderella). If you watched us play this year, we were pretty competitive with some bigger programs.”
Playing those teams was a tall task for a school with the third-smallest male high school enrollment in the district, with just 46 boys
The losses toughened them. They had a 4-3 record this season in games decided by six points or fewer, with all those wins in the last month.
“When we’re locked in tight games in the second half,” Bastardi said. “No one is panicking. We’re all very comfortable.”
“Those games where we kind of balled up at the end of a game,” Ciambotti said, “we now see guys that are poised and battle-tested, they’re ready to meet the challenge in the fourth quarter.”
Also, in that season-opening 79-41 loss to Bishop Carroll, St. Joseph’s wilted under the Huskies’ full-court pressure and faced a 20-point deficit before the first quarter was even finished.
“We like pressure now,” Bastardi said. “It opens up the floor for us. … We like to run. We just want to get out and run.”
The District 6 Class AA champion golfer last fall knows all about dealing with pressure, but he was playing basketball long before he started swinging a driver.
“In golf when things go wrong, I can just blame myself,” said Bastardi, who is still weighing his options to play in college and study meteorology. “You know the source of the issue and you can work right away to fix that. With a team it’s different. It’s about chemistry. It’s about five (players) working as one. It’s more work as a team to get to where you want to be, but when it’s actually working, there’s nothing quite like a team working together. It’s cliché, but it’s so cool.”
Win or lose, St. Joseph’s has at least two games left in the season. The top three finishers earn berths in the PIAA’s 32-team tournament, so either the finals or a consolation game await Friday night. The championship game will be played at 8 p.m. at St. Francis’ Degol Arena.
But Ciambotti is not discussing that with his team. He would rather they continue to feel their backs against the wall.
“At this point we’re in this tournament to win the thing,” he said. “It is do-or-die in that sense.”
It follows what Ciambotti had on those pages he handed to the parents last fall, as crazy as it might have seemed at the time.
“It was asking a lot at first,” said Jabco, whose 18 points-per-game scoring average matches Stephen Beattie for the team lead. “I think at the beginning of the year it put a lot of pressure on us. To have that on there, to know we have to make that now, it’s setting a goal for us but it’s putting pressure on us.”
It turned out to be a belief that, despite what logic may say, this team is capable of so much more.
“You’ve got to think that way,” Ciambotti said. “You’ve got to set your goals to that level. I certainly would not want to lower the bar for expectations for our program, no matter the stage of development of our program.”