E.A. Sports Today

Cardinals repeat

Sacred Heart lays claim to best 1A team ever in Alabama after capping impressive season with second straight state title

Diante Wood was named MVP of the Class 1A Final Four after scoring 30 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Below, guard D.J. Heath is fouled going to the basket. Heath was 15 of 22 from the line in the game. (Photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

Diante Wood was named MVP of the Class 1A Final Four after scoring 30 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Below, guard D.J. Heath is fouled going to the basket. Heath was 15 of 22 from the line in the game. (Photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

By Jason Katz
For East Alabama Sports Today

BIRMINGHAM — Sacred Heart came into the season with one goal in mind – repeating as state champions. It’s a lot harder than you might think, but the Cardinals made it look easy.

They jumped on their opponent early as they had done all year and handily put away the Georgiana Panthers 95-75 Thursday to win their second straight Class 1A state championship.

“We are just trying to take it in right now,” junior guard Kevion Nolan said with a grin on his face. “We have never experienced back-to-back titles before and this is definitely a relieving feeling to know how hard we worked all season to reach this point.”

The Cardinals (29-8) have been on the clock to repeat since taking their first title in school history last year at the BJCC. With the bulk of that roster not only returning, but maturing over the season, this Cardinal team defied what the critics said could never happen and solidified themselves at the top of the basketball food chain.

Coach Ralph Graves even suggested this was “probably” the best 1A team to ever come through the state given all it accomplished this year. Besides cleaning up against teams in their own classification, the Cardinals beat four Class 7A teams this season.

“A lot of people said we couldn’t do it again this year and that is was too much of hill to climb,” junior guard D.J. Heath said. “We knew that this season was going to be more difficult than last because we had a target on our back, but we maintained focus and determination and made it count when it needed to.”

Diante Wood dominated the Panthers. He led all scorers and clinched the MVP award with a double-double that included 30 points and 13 rebounds. He had 17 points and 12 boards in the semifinals against Keith.

“If it wasn’t for my teammates and coaches letting me get the ball and go score the ball I wouldn’t have this right now,” Wood said. “I really don’t care about MVP, I was just worried about getting the blue (state championship) trophy. We went and got a blue trophy.”

Coach Ralph Graves, who for most of the season stayed calm and focused on the bigger goal, finally cracked a smile and even started to cut-up as he celebrated with his team. The Cardinals are the third straight team to win back-to-back 1A titles and fifth since 2000.

“Nobody at our school, including myself or the coaching staff, ever experienced back-to-back championships,” Graves said. “To win a back-to-back championship is … harder than winning the first one, I’ll tell you that.

“There are so many distractions that come along with being a champion in the previous year that it makes it really hard to win it. … Everybody has their expectations for what you should do as a champion and for us to come back and do it again, that speaks volumes for the character of our team, our school, our coaching staff and our administration.”

Most coaches that have championship winning teams think their players are different, but Graves has seen these titles coming for some time.

“I remember when D.J. and Kevion were in the seventh grade and Diante was in the sixth grade and we were playing in our first game and lost,” Graves recalled. “They were crying and torn up and I said, ‘Wow if they are like this now imagine how they will be when they get older.’ I have known for some time that this team would be special.”

Heath was challenging Wood for MVP honors the entire game as he put up 29 points, going 15 of 22 from the free throw line. Nolan capped of a stellar season with 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Kavarri Ross, the MVP of last year’s 1A Final Four, was the first to score for the Cardinals with an opening 3 and had eight points.

The 95 points Sacred Heart scored were the most by a winning team in a Class 1A title game. The 170 by both teams was also a 1A title game record.

Georgiana (30-2) looked in the opening seconds of the game as if it would compete with Sacred Heart, but the Panthers were simply overmatched as they struggled to find consistency against a superior opponent.

Senior forward Richard Boggan led the Panthers with 25 points and 15 rebounds. Ja’Michael Stallworth and Jacquez Payton had 18 and 16 points, respectively.

In a few days the Cardinals will look back and see what they have accomplished. Not only did they beat all the teams they played in their own classification, most of them badly, they beat four Class 7A teams. For most this would be enough, but as all but one player returns next season many will ask if the Cardinals can three-peat?

No 1A school has ever three-peated. The last team on any level to do it was Wenonah from 2011-13. Only eight boys teams have ever done it.

That’s a question for another day. Next on the agenda is a 1:30 p.m. pep rally with the student body Friday.

“I can say this: I think this year’s team at Sacred Heart was probably the best 1A school to ever come through the state of Alabama,” Graves said. “Right now we are just going to go celebrate this championship and see what the future has in store.”

Maybe they will just take it one game at a time.

Sacred Heart 95, Georgiana 75

SACRED HEART (29-8) — Diante Wood 11-17 8-9 30, Kavarri Ross 3-5 0-0 8, Samuel Miller 2-4 0-0 4, D.J. Heath 7-13 15-22 29, Kevion Nolan 6-9 0-0 16, Murdock Simmons 1-3 2-2 5, Caleb Lafollette 1-1 0-0 3, Stephen Stansil 0-1 0-0 0, JonRiley Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Jaylin Croft 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-53 25-33 95.

GEORGIANA (30-2) — Nizaiah Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Richard Boggan 10-12 5-9 25, Jacquez Payton 4-16 8-8 26, Demarcus Rich 0-3 0-2 0, Ja’Michael Stallworth 6-17 3-5 18, Clarence Curry 0-1 0-0 0, Keinderus Mobley 2-4 1-2 6, DeAarion Squaire 3-5 1-1 7, Daquan Crenshaw 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 26-59 18-27 75.

Sacred Heart 23 25 26 21 — 95
Georgiana 10 23 16 26 — 75

3-point goals: Sacred Heart 8-15 (Wood 0-1, Ross 2-3, Heath 0-1, Nolan 4-6, Simmons 1-2, Lafollette 1-1, Stencil 0-1); Georgiana 5-17 (Payton 0-2, Stallworth 3-10, Mobley 1-3, Crenshaw 1-1). Rebounds: Sacred Heart 33 (Wood 13, Simmons 7); Georgiana 36 (Boggan 15). Fouled out: Rich. Total fouls: Sacred Heart 20, Georgiana 25. Officials: Desmond Oden, Bobby Stewart, Ken Barnet.


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