The Cardinals’ first trip to the Class 1A Final Four includes a semifinal matchup with the defending state champion St. Jude. In addition, St. Jude (22-7) finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the final Alabama Sports Writers Association poll.
The two teams meet today at 1:30 p.m. at Birmingham’s BJCC Arena, and Sacred Heart (25-6) doesn’t enter a slouch, either. The Cardinals haven’t lost to a Class 1A school this year, with defeats coming Spain Park and Smiths Station of Class 6A, Valley and Athens of 5A, Anniston of 4A, and Whitefield Academy, a private school power out of Georgia.
Sacred Heart has won 16 of its last 17, with the only defeat coming by two points to Anniston in the Calhoun County tournament.
“The expectations from Day One were to get to Birmingham,” Sacred Heart coach Ralpheal Graves said. “We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could play at our level and that we’re one of the top teams in our class.”
Graves knows what it takes to be the top team in the state, too. He played for Anniston when it won the Class 4A title in 2002 and was an assistant coach when the Bulldogs took the 5A crown in 2009.
“It’s an honor to be coaching and having had played in that tournament and that type of atmosphere, but I don’t think it’s any different than playing anywhere else,” he said. “If you love the game then everything is the same.
“But, I’ll put it like this, if you do get nervous and get your butt whooped, then you’ll be headed back to the house. You have to get yourself focused and mentally prepared to play to the best of your abilities, and if you’re supposed to win then you will.”
Sacred Heart’s story leading to this point started when Graves started coaching the team three years ago.
Graves hasn’t made any changes to his philosophy, but rather his players getting older and growing up is what’s been the biggest difference. Even now as the Cardinals prepare for the Final Four, Graves starts a senior, a junior, two freshmen and an eighth-grader.
“They believe in what we do at Sacred Heart, so this really doesn’t surprise me, even though they’re so young,” Graves said. “I think time was the biggest issue – time and commitment. The biggest difference is the kids are older and grew. We’ve learned about each other a little more so we’re more comfortable with how I coach them and how they respond and what I need to do as far as knowing them.
“Right now, it’s coming into play, and hopefully, we can continue to grow.”
Sacred Heart cruised through 1A, Area 12, winning the regular-season championship and tournament, and also finished runner-up in the Calhoun County basketball tournament, its best finish in school history. All of that came after the Cardinals traveled the state for tough games to start the season and were only 3-4 through seven games.
“We’ve been having solid play. At the beginning of the year, it was kind of rough for the kids because we were playing tough competition,” Graves said. “I think they got a little discouraged, but that’s part of the plan to get us equipped for later in the season. What really matters is the postseason.
“It was kind of tough to keep all the outside influences out and make sure they’re not peaking too early. I think that was the big difference for us.”
Another difference has been the play at guard of freshmen D.J. Heath and Kevion Nolan, juniors Quen Williams and Darrin Wood and senior Jake Peoples.
“We start guards. I think that’s a big key to our team, but it’s also one of our biggest weaknesses,” Graves said. “When your strength is guards, rebounding can be a problem. I think each kid understands what his role is and once you understand that it’s easy to put the puzzle together.”
The lone big man, 6-foot-4 Diante Wood, has used an offseason growth spurt to his advantage this season, but St. Jude will be a test that the eighth-grader and Sacred Heart haven’t seen this season.
The Pirates’ roster includes eight players that are all 6-foot-0 or taller, headlined by 6-8 Tommy Burton, 6-6 Jacob Winston and 6-4 Andrew Rogers.
The last true center Sacred Heart faced was Spring Garden’s Will Westbrook in the Northeast Regional semifinal. Even though Westbrook scored 20 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, it was the Cardinals who got the win.
Sacred Heart has dominated in recent weeks, but entering its matchup against St. Jude, Graves doesn’t think this team has played its best game.
“Right now is the time to turn it on and that’s a good thing,” he said. “You can be satisfied to say you’ve already played your best ball. That’s never a good thing.
“We’re just going to continue taking it a day at a time, and hopefully, we can continue to play well throughout the state tournament.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.