By PAUL A. BARRA
SUMTER — When players and cheerleaders suit up for the basketball season at St. Francis Xavier High School, more than half the student population is in uniform.
That size limitation didn’t stop the Padres from winning their first-ever state championship earlier this month in boys basketball.
The Francis Xavier boys went 12-0 in their conference enroute to an overall record of 20-10. Most of the losses were against larger SCISA (South Carolina Independent Schools Association) schools. That was a willful strategy, according to the coach.
“I knew we’d be pretty good this year, so to have a shot at the title, I scheduled as many tough teams as possible before we got to the conference,” said Chris Cocovello.
The strategy apparently worked. St. Francis ran through the regional schedule with all 13 players getting to play in most games. Cocovello also played everybody in the championship game of the statewide playoffs, a 61-44 win over Laurens Academy on March 2.
The starting lineup included three seniors and two freshmen. One of the starters, 6’1″ senior A. J. Alston, stood out even on a championship team. He scored 1,400 points in his career and grabbed 1,000 rebounds. That kind of day-in-day-out performance grabbed the attention of opposing coaches and officials.
“A.J. won every honor you could imagine,” his coach said. “He was selected as the 1A SCISA Conference Player of the Year and made the All-Star team three years in a row.”
Cocovello said that the team is composed of players who work hard and do what’s asked of them. All coaches in private schools are not so lucky. He saw one opposing player stomp out of the gym in a fit of pique after he was benched during a game.
“Our players were willing to do whatever you tell them to do. They’re terrific. They were always there and never questioned me,” Cocovello said.
He was proud of his boys for that, he said, and for setting goals and seeing them through to the very end. Cocovello’s boss, principal Dianne E. Trapini, was proud of them also.
“They are really a tribute to our school,” the administrator said. “They handled themselves as gentlemen all season long. They are wonderful kids.”
Trapini also revealed that opposing coaches elected Coach Cocovello unanimously as Coach of the Year. He coached the league All-Star game on March 9 at Francis Marion University.
The starters for St. Francis Xavier included another senior, their big man Chris Engemen, and a second standout, John Dowell. Dowell scored more than 900 points in his career and hauled in more than 800 rebounds. He was, according to Cocovello, the emotional leader of the championship team.
“The seniors set the example for us all, especially for the freshmen,” he said.
The freshmen starters included All-Conference Player John Seth, who started all year and “handled it well,” and Ricardo Gibson, who was All-Tournament during the state tourney and was the leading scorer in the semi-final game against Newberry Academy.
Other players on the St. Francis Xavier team during their championship season were senior Nash Jamieson; juniors Terry Hodge, Brandon Shade and Josh Hallums; sophomores Mike McCabe and Vince Rigor; and freshmen Roger Long and Ben Seitz.
Trapini was pleased with the way Chris Cocovello, who is also a teacher at St. Francis, handled his athletes, and she called him “a great role model.” Cocovello, for his part, was pleased with the fact that nine of his players will be back in uniform next winter.
Both principal and coach were pleased with the publicity the five-year-old Catholic school was receiving from their first championship.