When Dominican High School’s boys basketball team won the WIAA Division 4 state championship title on March 19, it became the first team ever to take do so five years in a row.

The Dominican boys basketball team poses with the state championship trophy – its fifth consecutive title – following a 62-43 win over Cameron, Saturday, March 19, in Madison.For a team accustomed to winning, another state title – the school’s seventh overall – might not seem special. But last spring, the team graduated several star players, and when the 2015-2016 season began, even dedicated fans and supporters wondered whether the Knights would be able to continue their success.

To combat negative vibes, head coach Derek Berger and his staff emphasized team unity, promoting a family atmosphere to help bond the players. Organizing team dinners, activities and outings, said Berger, were some “little things” that helped “group the guys together and make them fight for one another.”

Himself a 1998 graduate of Dominican High School and lifelong Catholic, Berger had a secret weapon in his coaching arsenal – one that most of the team’s opponents didn’t have.

“At Dominican, before our games, we do pray as a team,” he said. “I try and pray for things that will be noticeable to student athletes, and I think when they see me pray for other members of the team, for family members, for coaches, and just for our opportunity as a team, hopefully it lets them know that it’s OK to pray in front of your friends and it’s OK to pray when you feel the need to and not like you have to hide it.”

Prayer promotes team bonding

It’s a simple gesture that has made a big impact on several players, including team captains Jake Bennett and Mike Ferrici. Bennett, a junior, and Ferrici, a senior, have played on the varsity for three years.

“For me, I’ve actually really come to enjoy the prayer aspect before the game,” said Bennett. “I take that pretty seriously. It kind of helps relax and take my mind off of basketball for just a second before we all go out and play. It just kind of reminds me of the other things going on in the world and how important they are, and how basketball’s just kind of a game.”

Ferrici, who attends St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, described it as a “perk” of playing basketball for a Catholic Dominican’s Kostas Antetokounmpo drives to the basket in the title game. (Submitted photos courtesy Dominican High School by Spencer Smith)school.

“I think that really brings us closer together than we already are,” he said. “I think that’s something that really works to our advantage because it’s one of those things that adds on to another (layer), bringing us closer as a team. This year a lot of our players were new to each other so it’s those little things that help a lot.”

Berger, Ferrici and Bennett said they felt the team’s prayer life was instrumental in overcoming what Berger called “the doubters” that plagued the beginning of this season.

“This year was basically a whole new lineup, new chemistry and what not,” said Bennett, who himself was dealing with some personal issues, including a few injuries sustained last summer and during the football season, when he was the Knights’ quarterback.

“I came back with honestly no practice at all, and the first month of the season I was just trying to work on getting my conditioning down and getting back into the swing of things,” he said.

The season ended in a particularly sweet spot for Bennett, who led the Knights with 25 points in their 62-43 championship victory over Cameron.

“Just to see these kids start over the summertime and fall, see them really struggle – and a lot of times when you struggle people will tend to give up, but I think this team started to struggle and then saw a little bit of success and they really banded together and started to fight just a little bit harder and work just a little bit harder, and came through to the point where they were able to go 27 and 1 and win their fifth straight championship,” said Berger.

“This year, I feel that this year, compared to the previous years, has been a lot different. We’re more cohesive as a team; we all come together as one, especially compared to other years,” said Ferrici. “I feel like if one player on our team has a bad game, we can all make up for that, compared to last year where we had one or two top players.”

Modeling Catholic values a priority

Berger said he doesn’t feel his job ends with just helping the student athletes develop as basketball players.

Dominican High School’s fans cheer their boys basketball team’s fifth consecutive state title, Saturday, March 19, in Madison. (Submitted photo courtesy Dominican High School by Spencer Smith)Several players on the team, including Bennett, are not Catholic, but undoubtedly all look up to their coaching staff – and activities like praying publicly, to a teenager, send a strong message.

“As teenagers, at that teenaged stage, you never know, the kids may feel uncomfortable doing something in front of (their) peers, but hopefully seeing the coaching staff pray as a team with the guys, hopefully they’ll feel comfortable,” said Berger, who added that the team often personalizes their prayer requests, mentioning personal struggles or family illnesses.

“Hopefully that modeling shows them what they should be doing off the court. I preach to the players and the staff on making the right decision wherever you are, at home or at a friend’s house, on the court, at school, in the park or wherever. And hopefully all that stuff kind of, through modeling and through speaking, kind of sinks in.”