KISL basketball: A true underdog story

Bill Brewer News, Schools

St. Joseph point guard Luke Smith, the KISL small school division tournament MVP, takes a turn cutting the net after he led the Bulldogs to a tournament championship victory over St. Mary School of Oak Ridge on Feb. 5 at St. Joseph. Photo by Bill Brewer

St. Joseph point guard Luke Smith, the KISL small school division tournament MVP, takes a turn cutting the net after he led the Bulldogs to a tournament championship victory over St. Mary School of Oak Ridge on Feb. 5 at St. Joseph.
Photo by Bill Brewer

St. John Neumann School’s boys varsity basketball team claimed the 2012-13 Knoxville Independent School League tournament championship in the large school division, defeating Episcopal School of Knoxville in the championship game.

The Mustangs, who finished second in the KISL regular season, were led by tournament most valuable player Joseph Fluker, All-Tournament selections Sean Purcell and JB Schaffer and All-League selection Jack Sompayrac. JB also made the All-League team.

But the surprise of the KISL season had to have been St. Joseph School, whose varsity boys team finished the season with a 21-0 record and the KISL small school regular season and tournament championships.

The Bulldogs’ improbable perfect season included wins over rivals St. John Neumann, St. Mary School of Oak Ridge, and Sacred Heart Cathedral School, whose Varsity Higdon basketball team is competing in the T-N-T State Tournament in Springfield, Tenn.

Led by eighth-grade point guard Luke Smith, the Bulldogs defeated St. Mary 31-22 on Feb. 5. Luke, who contributed 17 points in that game, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

Joining Luke on the all-tournament team from the Bulldogs were eighth-grade post Lucky DePersio and sixth-grade shooting guard Walter Pickering. Luke and Bulldogs wing Caleb Morgan were All-League selections. Rounding out the St. Joseph squad were Rece Harpst, Robert Crowell, Presley Clancy, Eric Nelson and Seth Griffin.

St. Mary concluded a successful season as tournament runners-up.

In a scene rarely, if ever, repeated at St. Joseph, players and coaches cut down one of the nets following the championship game as students, faculty, friends and family gathered to capture the moment with video cameras, digital cameras and smart phones.

While few, if any, St. Joseph supporters can recall another season to match the 2012-13 campaign, records of teams past dating to the North Knoxville school’s founding in 1963 are sparse. But athletic director Jeff Morgan said all indications point to a first.

“As far as anyone can tell, it’s never been done,” Mr. Morgan said, citing longtime parish families with connections to the school since its opening as well as past coaches who can’t recall a similar feat.

Adding to the remarkable story is the fact St. Joseph’s roster doesn’t include a player over 5 feet, 10 inches tall. While many teams in the KISL small school division are dominated by players under 6 feet, a number of teams have players over 6 feet.

The nine-man roster included two sixth-graders and a seventh-grader as well as six eighth-graders.
St. Joseph principal Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann McCullough credited much of the Bulldogs’ success to heart.

“I am very happy for our boys varsity basketball team and for their faithful fans, especially the parents. I am proud, not only of their record but also of the way they have played throughout the season. They have generated a lot of excitement in our school and provided a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when you really want something and put forth the effort needed to achieve it,” Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann said.

The strong seasons put together by St. Joseph, St. John Neumann, and St. Mary in the KISL point to the success Catholic schools are having in league play among area independent schools, according to Sister Mary Marta Abbott, the Diocese of Knoxville’s superintendent of schools.

“I find it exciting that our Catholic schools that are part of the KISL finished so strong. St. Joseph, St. John Neumann and St. Mary all played at a championship level,” Sister Mary Marta said.

Boys varsity teams weren’t the only ones playing at a high level this season.

The St. Joseph girls team finished 14-7 and in third place in league and tournament play. Katie Lawson was named to the All-League and All-Tournament teams. Junior varsity players Anna Hoang and Preston Reyda were selected to the All-League teams.

St. John Neumann’s boys junior varsity team was undefeated and finished first in the KISL tournament, defeating Freedom Christian School in the championship game. The Cougars’ Macklin Stephenson was the MVP of the boys junior varsity tournament, and Tyler Hayes and Brock Hart were named to the All-Tournament team.

St. John Neumann girls varsity player Camryn DeFilippo was selected to the All-League team as was junior varsity girls player Mary Iverson.
And at Sacred Heart, seventh-grader Rachel DeBaar and sixth-grader Trey Ridenour of the Varisty Hall squad were named to All-KISL teams.