Story by Evan Oscherwitz
The St. Mary’s Knights’ victory in the 4A basketball state championship game on Mar. 20 was a moment four years in the making.
When head coach Damin Lopez took control in 2017, the Knights were in the midst of a nine-year title drought. The once storied program had become stagnant, and major changes needed to occur for it to return to its former glory.
Lopez knew exactly what it would take for St. Mary’s to be successful again. He had seen the program at its best, serving as an assistant during his father’s illustrious tenure as the Knights’ head coach.
His vision for the future of St. Mary’s basketball revolved around a strong team culture and a close-knit relationship with the fan base, and he wasted no time fixing the program’s underlying issues.
“There was kind of a disconnect between the program and the St. Mary’s community,” Lopez said. “I really felt that if we could start rebuilding that community and rebuilding that interest, that things could go back on a pretty high level. There wasn’t that continuity and that family atmosphere that had been there before.”
In hopes of repairing the strained relationship between the team and its supporters, Lopez devised a strategy to make home games as enjoyable as possible for those in attendance. He focused on revitalizing the student section and met with students to brainstorm new ideas for in-game entertainment.
If all went according to plan, the new and improved atmosphere would not only attract fans, but also make St. Mary’s an attractive destination for prospective players.
“The first thing I needed to do was get a student section behind us,” Lopez said. “We felt like if we could invigorate that student section and kind of get it behind us a little bit, that would start to generate more interest in the program. We had events that were centered around our games. Scheduling food trucks on the outside before games, DJs, coffee trucks, just getting people a different atmosphere.”
While the program’s standing within the St. Mary’s community quickly improved as a result of Lopez’s plan, the team’s record did not. In his first season as coach, the Knights faced an unforgiving schedule and lost their first eight games, finishing the year with a 12-17 record.
Wins were hard to come by, but the team improved as the year ran its course. More importantly, the players bought into Lopez’s vision and began to lay the foundation for a new golden age of St. Mary’s basketball.
“[That team] helped me change the culture in terms of what we wanted here at St. Mary’s and how we wanted our program to be represented. From there it just slowly grew,” Lopez said.
Aided by the arrival of a talented freshman class, the Knights improved from 12 wins in 2017-18 to 19 the following year. As the victories began to pile up, so too did the number of players looking to join Lopez’s up-and-coming squad.
The transfer requests provided an immediate opportunity for Lopez to add talent to his roster, but he did not want to sacrifice team continuity by adding new players to the mix, and instead opted to groom the players he already had at his disposal.
The decision paid off, as the team took another step forward in 2019-20, finishing with a 24-4 record and winning their first section title in 11 years.
— Saint Mary's Hoops (@wearesmhoops) March 11, 2021
“I really wanted to start at that point, so we could have players for two, three, and four years,” Lopez said. “We don’t necessarily want to get a player that’s going to be around for a year. We’ve had quite a few transfers that wanted to come in and we have told them, ‘listen, it’s probably not the right place.’”
Lopez’s insistence on limiting roster turnover paved the way for a landmark season in 2021. St. Mary’s overcame a delayed start to the year, a condensed schedule and strict COVID-related regulations en route to a 21-1 record and a second consecutive section title.
The Knights ended the season on a 20-game winning streak and cruised through the playoff bracket, ultimately defeating Paradise Honors in the championship game for their first state title since 2008.
In just four years, Lopez had realized his vision for the program, and he had done it under some of the toughest circumstances imaginable.
Saint Mary’s head coach Damin Lopez cuts down the net after Saint Mary’s first championship victory since 2009 pic.twitter.com/3BWmQNLboT
— Chris Fahrendorf (@chris_drop_) March 20, 2021
“To actually win the title in a season like this, it’s off the charts,” Lopez said. “It was so mentally taxing all year long, between getting the season pushed back a couple times, then not playing, then playing, then dealing with all the masks, then dealing with all of society in terms of COVID and putting yourself somewhat in a bubble, and then playing basketball. There’s just so many other things that these kids and us as coaches had to deal with this year.”
For now, Lopez and St. Mary’s will celebrate their championship and catch up on some much-needed rest after a long and arduous season, but the challenge of defending their title looms large. While the Knights will return four starters next season, Lopez knows that replicating this past season’s success will be no easy task.
However, he is confident that the culture he has built over the past four years will translate to more success in the near future, and if the Knights’ trend of consistent improvement is anything to go by, they should be contenders again in 2022.