The eighth grade boys’ basketball team from St. Mary, Hales Corners, played the classic Cinderella role during the recently concluded Padre Serra Tournament. It was the undersized, underachieving team that shocked the Catholic basketball world — in southeastern Wisconsin.
From the beginning it seemed the team was destined to fail. It didn’t have a head coach until days before the season started when the parish’s associate pastor, Fr. Matthew Widder, stepped up.
“I thought hopefully someone else would coach,” he said. “It was shortly before the season and they didn’t have a coach. That was an obvious sign to jump in and start coaching.”
Fr. Widder played basketball in high school at Sheboygan Falls but knew nothing about coaching. He recruited young adults from the parish to help and his first call went to Matt Pitton, a young man whose wedding Fr. Widder had presided over in 2011.
“Before we met for the wedding, we would always talk about sports,” Fr. Widder said.
Pitton had a longer and more recent history of playing basketball and plays during the open gyms at the parish. Coaching alongside a priest, he said, was a different experience.
“It’s amazing to see the different personalities that he can bring,” Pitton said. “Normally when you see a priest up at the altar (he’s) very reverent. Fr. Matthew gets after it in basketball practice. He yells. He pushes the kids.”
Soon after, they recruited Darvy Mann, a resident at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, and Joe Falzon, a senior at Franklin High School.
“If it wasn’t for them, there’s no way I could coach,” Fr. Widder said.
The Royals endured a rough season in Parkview Parochial League play going 2-10, but despite the record were given an invitation to the Padre Serra Tournament.
“To be honest, we got a lucky break to get into the tournament,” Fr. Widder said. “We lost a lot more than we’ve won but we always keep trying to tell the kids, forget about the past, don’t look ahead to the future, just focus like St. Paul says, ‘Now.’”
Scott Paprocki, parent of Matthew, one of the players, was a witness to the rollercoaster year.
“It was a really interesting season,” Paprocki said. “They had kind of a rough start. Once they started playing together as a team, they really put it together as, you can see in these tournaments, believing in each other. They took on the big team concept.”
One of the players, Max Thompson, has been one of the leaders in keeping the team together.
“He comes to the games and he’s got a whole sheet of paper that he’s got all these notes written down and he writes them up on the whiteboard before the game,” Fr. Widder said. “We (coaches) just have to say a little bit because he’s already gone through it all.”
Fr. Widder said moments like these are why extracurricular activities are important.
“That’s what it’s about; we’re developing leaders and I say, ‘Praise God,’” Fr. Widder said.
Fr. Widder wears his Roman collar to every game as a reminder to people he’s more than just a coach.
“When I was growing up as a kid, I never knew any priests and always thought to myself if I’m a priest I probably can’t play sports,” he said. “There’s an incredible witness to wearing the collar and I’m proud to be a priest … and hopefully help others to consider being a priest.”
In their opening tournament game, the Royals defeated St. Monica, Whitefish Bay, 37-22. They added victories over St. Anthony, Pewaukee, 38-30, and St. Lucy, Racine, 36-23.
Suddenly, they had more wins in two weeks than they had all year.
The fourth game, on March 22, was against St. Joseph, Big Bend, a team that had defeated them twice during the season.
The teams traded baskets and went into halftime tied at 17. At the end of a defense-heavy third quarter, St. Joseph was up, 21-18. That lead wouldn’t last long as St. Mary opened the fourth quarter nailing a 3-pointer.
Thompson acted like the smallest coach on the floor by bringing up the ball, directing his teammates and calling out plays when he recognized the defense.
Fr. Widder and Pitton remained on top of their team, doing everything they could to help each player be in the right position.
Throughout the final quarter, the teams again traded baskets. St. Mary was down by 2 with a minute left when the Royals missed a layup that would have tied the game. St. Mary immediately fouled to stop the clock, forcing St. Joseph to inbound the ball under its own basket. St. Mary intercepted the inbound pass but was unable to run a play before turning it over with about 43 seconds left.
Their only chance was to put St. Joseph on the foul line and try to get the ball back. However, the team played too clean and had committed only one foul at that point. It took roughly 12 seconds off the clock to accumulate the fouls needed to put St. Joseph on the line.
St. Mary would eventually lose, 30-25; their miracle season was over.
As the team was in the locker room, fans and parents waited patiently in the hallway for their team of underdogs.
Paprocki, visibly emotional about the loss, said the team played hard and was in awe of the turnout from the St. Mary community.
“I’m proud of him (and) all the boys,” he said.
When the team exited the locker room, it was obvious tears had been shed. This wasn’t a team that felt “lucky” to be in the tournament. As one of the final eight teams, they felt they could win it all.
“When you invest yourself in something, it’s going to hurt,” Fr. Widder said. “We were spending those last moments (in the locker room) as a family. We’ve been a family for four months.”
Fr. Widder said in the locker room he felt emotional, “big time,” and had a sigh of frustration.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “We put it all on the line.”
Pitton called the season a “heck of a ride.”
“It was a battle from the start,” Pitton said. “We started out the season not winning basketball games. The kids banded together.”
Thompson was selected as a member of the all-tournament team, and Fr. Widder believes “he would turn it in” for a win.
From coaches to parents, no one expected this team to go this far.
“To be honest, our record is irrelevant,” Fr. Widder said. “The key is glorifying God through basketball. Faith life is full of ups and downs … that’s been our season.”