St. Catherine captured the WIAA Division 3 state championship on Saturday, March 6, in Oshkosh. (Submitted photo)

A year ago at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the boys basketball team at St. Catherine High School in Racine was sitting at 25-0, ranked No. 1 in the state and was just one victory away from reaching the state tournament.

Then the whole world basically shut down in an instant, including athletics, leaving the Angels trying to figure out what had just happened.

“It felt like something was missing,” said St. Catherine coach Nick Bennett. “The question I have been asked the most since last year is ‘Would you have rather lost?’ I can honestly say the answer to that is yes. You go out there and you get beat in competitive athletics, that’s a part of it. That’s how it goes sometimes. But to go undefeated and not feel like you had a chance to play for a title, it was a weird, strange feeling. It really did feel like it was a combined journey, last year and this year.”

The Angels had to wait an extra 51 weeks, but on Saturday, March 6, they completed their mission of winning the school’s first state championship since 2010 with a 68-49 victory over Lake Country Lutheran at Oshkosh’s Menominee Nation Arena.

“I think it will take some time for it to cement on what this journey meant to us and what this season even meant to us,” Bennett said. “The strange thing is these last two years kind of feel like they’re meshed together. I don’t know quite how to explain it.”

The Angels, led by a group of six seniors, went 28-1 this year for a combined two-year record of 53-1. They did that while never practicing or playing a game in their home gym. Because of the city of Racine’s COVID-19 protocols, St. Catherine had to practice at a small gym with tile floors just outside the city limits and every game they played was on the road.

“That just added a little bit more to the story,” Bennett said. “Our kids obviously made the best of it and they made it our home away from home.”

Bennett said the extended time on the road for games and practices helped bond the team.

“I look at kids like MPS: They didn’t get a season, so for the kids that didn’t get a season, they had it much worse than us,” Bennett said. “That alternative is much worse than what we had to endure. For us, it’s just a piece of our story. It definitely made us closer. Our kids never let it detract from their goals. They never let it become a problem.”

Not to be forgotten for the Angels were four seniors who had their careers abruptly ended in March 2020: Elijah Sabala, Caleb Chernouski, Elijah Lambert and Brock Naidl.

“For the way the season ended last year, we were playing with other people in mind,” Bennett said. “Let’s not do the woe-is-me stuff because there’s people who have it worse, and we get to play, and we get to play together. I think we got the opportunity to do it at a pretty high level.”

In the state championship game, the Angels jumped out to a 20-5 lead in the game’s first six minutes; Lake Country charged back and cut the lead to 32-27 at the half.

In the second half, the Angels re-established control of the game with a nine-minute stretch where they extended the lead back up to 54-36.

Kamari McGee led the way in the title game with 26 points, while Jameer Barker added 14 points and 11 rebounds, Marcel Tyler added 14 points and Calvin Hunter drilled a trio of 3-pointers.

The Angels will lose a total of seven seniors from this title team, including the school’s all-time leading scorer, Tyrese Hunter, who will play his collegiate ball at Iowa State. Other seniors for the team included McGee (a career 1,000-point scorer with a 4.0 GPA who will play at UW-Green Bay), Barker, Victavian Thomas, Dion Daniels, Calvin Hunter and Tyler.

“There’s been some storied players and teams here,” Bennett said. “We’re just happy to be a part of it.”