Todd Wolfson is the head boys basketball coach at St. Francis High School in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Dear 2019-2020 Golden Knights Basketball Team,
“Challenges are what make life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes them meaningful.” – Unknown
Rewind to June 27, 2019. Southern California basketball fans know one of the places you want to be in the summer is at Fairfax High School’s summer event.
I remember it like yesterday walking into that hot, muggy Fairfax High School gym like a story similar to David & Goliath. On one side on the court stood 6’4, 6’6, 6’7, 6’8 and more. Mater Dei High School in their bright red uniforms in the second round of the Fairfax tournament.
On the other side warming up was you guys. The St. Francis Golden Knights. A gentleman wearing a bright red Mater Dei shirt came out of the stands and walked across the middle of the gym floor over to me and said, “Coach, is this your JV team?” I replied “Yes, we got a good JV program” and smiled.
There’s no other team in the world I would have rather been coaching after I told you guys that comment. I’ll never forget the look on your faces. I knew then and there we had something special with this group.
We ended up losing on a late basket by Mater Dei as they defeated us 74-72. I remember walking in the locker room and seeing your faces. It was like we lost the NBA championship. It was only summer basketball. The game didn’t count. But, I remember not saying a word in the locker room as our six seniors decided it was their time to talk postgame for a change.
“Remember this feeling,” one of you said. “No one believes in us but us,” said another. “Losing is still losing, we need to be better.” Finally one of our seniors stood up and broadly said, “Our road to the state championship starts now.”
Even then I thought, wow, pretty lofty goals for a team whose biggest player was 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds soaking wet. I thought, this team thinks they can win a state championship? I maybe even doubted how good we could be. The only thing I said after that game was, “If you guys want to win a state championship, it starts now. It starts in June, be ready to work harder than you have ever worked before.”
Confidence lit up your faces as we left the locker room with our 2020 goal. Win a state championship. I’ll never forget the fire in your eyes as we began our journey to get to Sacramento.
Months of weights, months of practices, months of fall league games, months and months of preparation. Days where we ran 10+ 17s, days of running lines, stairs, bleachers, hours of box-out drills, hours and hours of diving on the floor and taking charges. Blood, sweat and lots and lots of tears during our preparation to get to our goal.
We went undefeated in the fall and I remember questioning our assistant coaches, we either have something special here or I scheduled too soft. Our staff decided to keep 16 players on this team because we felt all 16 of you guys could contribute in some way towards our goal. We needed all 16 of you. Sure, some wouldn’t play much, but the chemistry, the camaraderie and the effort you brought at practice each day helped us prepare for our goal: A state championship in Sacramento.
I decided to schedule one of our tournaments in Sacramento so you guys could get familiar with the hotel and the area so when we came back, we would feel comfortable. We even got a tour of Golden 1 Center and took a picture at half court. We discussed we would be back here in March if we kept our focus and played basketball the right way. Share the ball, never get pushed around, play for one another and keep our main focus that the TEAM ALWAYS COMES FIRST. Every decision we make on and off the court has to always put the #TeamFirst. Our goal was to get back to Sacramento and win a state championship.
I can always go back to the wall in our locker room where there are more than 10 postings from websites, Twitter, etc with the 2020 “predicted Mission League standings” and in 9 of the 10, St. Francis is picked to finish … last.
The season went on and we just kept winning. Sure we lost a couple games here and there to some Open Division teams, but most of the games we played the right way and played together. Winning the Damien tournament, finishing second up north and finishing second place in the regular season in the Mission League, we just kept defying the odds. Our gym started to fill up, our student section was getting more and more “live” and people were starting to take notice of you guys. People would tell me, “Coach your team plays basketball the RIGHT way.” That isn’t any testament to our coaching staff, that’s a testament to you guys as players. We can tell you how to play and show you what to do, but when the lights come on, you have to do it.
You have to play the right way.
After our tough loss to Santa Clarita Christian in the CIF Southern Section Division II-AA championship game, we got back into the locker room and there were no tears. There was a sense of calm and understanding. Our goal was to win a state championship and that goal wasn’t yet out of reach.
We needed four wins in a week and a half to achieve that goal of coming back to the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. It was a tough road but I didn’t doubt you guys could do it. We kept winning, we kept selling out our gym, we kept our community buying back into St. Francis basketball. After defeating Eastvale Roosevelt we were named SoCal State Champions and we were on our way to Golden 1 Center to play for a State Championship.
Ten months after we lost to Mater Dei in the summer and set a goal, we were now ready to achieve that goal.
On March 11 we showed up to school. Bags packed, suitcases loaded, vans rented, we were ready to head to Sacramento when I got a phone call from our AD. A phone call that was hard for me to believe was true.
“Coach, they canceled the State Championship, I am sorry.”
Our dreams ripped away from us, our goals shattered by an outside force. We met at nutrition break when I broke the news to you guys. Tears, sadness, prayer and hugs ensued as we didn’t understand how someone could take our dreams away. We were selfish. We only thought about why WE couldn’t go and why WE got screwed by this. Why US? We didn’t understand and felt all our hard work was a waste. We weren’t #TEAMFIRST.
At that time we didn’t quite understand the severity of this virus and we were upset why we couldn’t achieve our goal. But then a moment happened when I was never happier as a coach. A moment more important than any win, any achievement, any trophy. I will never forget amidst the tears and sadness, our seniors stood up and said, “We need to stop thinking about ourselves. We need to pray for everyone who is going to be fighting this disease and start to think about what we can do to help others.”
That’s it. Our season is over. We won. That’s when I knew we won. We won!
We didn’t win a state championship, we didn’t get to go to Sacramento, but we won. You guys understood life, you guys understood what we have wanted to teach you since day one, you understood what life is all about. You realized that people aren’t going to judge you by winning and losing. People aren’t coming to the games to watch you because you’re winning. People are coming to support you and want to be part of our journey because of the kind of people you are.
I kept hearing “this team is easy to root for, you have all great kids” or “I love this team, they all get it, they play with passion and play as a team.” You learned about what it means to be a good person and how to care for others. Though we didn’t win a state championship, we won at the most important game: life.
I have never been prouder of a team that I’ve coached. You have inspired me to be a better person, a better leader, a better man and a better coach. You are the true definition of a team, you are all going to be amazing leaders in life. I have no doubt you will all be great men of character, great husbands, great fathers, great brothers and men that I will always be proud of.
Though we didn’t win the state championship … WE WON at life. That’s the more important game. I love you guys.
Coach Todd Wolfson