By Kenneth J. Souza
NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Looking back on his senior year playing basketball for Bishop Stang High School — a stellar season that culminated with the first-ever Division 3 state title for the school — it’s easy to understand why team co-captain Avery DeBrito gets a little emotional.
“In my freshman year, I was always ‘the little guy’ — that’s what coach used to call me,” DeBrito said.
But when newly-appointed head coach Colbey Santos came onboard two years ago, he saw something in DeBrito and his teammates that he sensed could become a winning formula.
“I think the team already had some good pieces in place before I got here, so we just molded it and worked on the team and in this second year they got better,” Santos recently told The Anchor. “These guys were competing every day at practice and sometimes they were just as competitive as they were during a game, so we were able to build on that. I think that’s when we started making a serious run at this.”
Tapping into that rare blend of skill and camaraderie, Santos was able to lead the Stang Spartans on the road to victory, ultimately besting Oxford, 80-64, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on March 18 to win the Division 3 MIAA state championship.
“It’s just been so much fun to play for him,” DeBrito said of his coach. “I just love basketball now because of him. He really taught me how to play my game.”
But Santos gives most of the credit to the 15-member team — a tight-knit group that forged a fast friendship on and off the basketball court.
“This group was so close,” Santos said. “I mean, practice would end and these guys wouldn’t want to leave. Some of them would sit in the locker room forever. They genuinely liked each other, and you don’t find that too often.”
“I think I’ve been really fortunate to have a great group of guys and a great coach this year,” agreed co-captain Matt Golden. “Coach really bought into us (as a team) and we’d have fun and he’d always be there during practice and would play against us. Anytime one of us thought we were getting pretty good, he’d come out and show us that we still needed to work harder to get where we wanted to be. It was pretty cool to have a coach who could do that with you and kind of put you in your place a bit.”
For Golden, this year’s big win was particularly satisfying after suffering a stress fracture last year that forced him to watch from the bench during the playoffs.
“Matt and Brycen Goodine were both injured last year and couldn’t play — we didn’t have either one playing with us during the state tournament last year,” Santos said. “We had to deal with a lot of injuries and I think that hurt us last season.”
Having watched the team grow and develop over the last two years, director of Athletics Ryan Sylvia said it was gratifying to see them work together to capture the title.
“From my perspective, it was great because I got to watch these guys play all year,” Sylvia said. “To me the real strength of this team was the fact that there was no selfishness at all. They were truly playing as a unit. They had some great individual players out there and they had some guys who were key, but they played the game the way it was supposed to be played and it showed.”
“Both captains were major parts of this team’s success,” Santos added. “Avery played key minutes last year and he became our starting point guard toward the end of the season, and Matt is the ultimate leader. So having those two players right away gave us a leg up.”
With just six seniors on the varsity team, Santos also relied on a healthy complement of underclassmen — including two freshmen — to contribute.
“When we stepped onto the court that first practice and moved up two freshmen, they had an impact right away,” he said. “If they can play as a freshman, I have no problem putting them on the team and throwing them out there. As long as you can play and do the right thing, you’ll play for me. And once they proved they could play a little bit, they really ended up helping us out.”
Another key to Stang’s hoops success this year may have been Santos’ signature rallying cry of “havoc!”
“When I was a player at James Madison we played against Virginia Commonwealth University, and they had a coach named Shaka Smart,” Santos explained. “That’s what he taught — this havoc, pressure, defense; havoc, pressure, defense idea. And looking at the kind of team that we had (here at Stang) — guys who were athletic, who would take charges, who could dive for the ball — I wondered if I could bring that same culture into our basketball program.
“And from day one they bought into it — and if you play as hard as you can for a couple of minutes on defense, you’re not going to be mad when I sub you out and bring someone else in. So that became a full team concept and the crowd bought into it and we bought into it and it got us a nice little run.”
Having now served as head coach at Stang for just two seasons, the impact of this win isn’t lost on Santos, who previously worked as assistant coach under Brian Baptiste at UMass Dartmouth, and came close to capturing his first championship while coaching Wareham High School in 2012 after a 20-0 season that ended with a disappointing loss against Danvers at the TD Garden.
“This is the first-ever state championship I’ve had, it’s the first-ever for the school and the first for these guys, and it’s been awesome,” he said. “Now that I’ve won the championship, I’ve set the bar pretty high.”
“You preach to these guys all year long, and you try to teach them that if they work hard and do what your coach tells you to do, it will put you in the best position possible, and these guys went out and did it,” added Sylvia. “There are life lessons in the things we talk about that are more important than wins and losses — and those things are important to every team. But when you do things the right way, then the wins will follow, and that’s what these guys did so it was nice to see.”
It seems that Santos’ coaching skills and the band of brothers on Stang’s basketball team made for a winning combination this year.
“The coach always told us, from the beginning, that we had the pieces to do something big this year,” DeBrito said. “So we really bought into the program and I think that made each of us play better every day as we practiced.”
And as he stepped onto the court for that final game, DeBrito said he was confident they would bring the trophy back home to Stang.
“I knew we were going to win — I wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” he said.
“The thing we kept talking about was don’t take this one for granted — this is the state championship game and this team is here for a reason,” Golden agreed. “But you also can’t go into the game believing that you’re not going to win. You have to believe you’re going to win it all and you have to work for it. And that’s what we did. We knew we could do it and we ended up getting it and that was exciting!”