The doubt came from all corners.
Classmates laughed in their faces. Teachers in their own school building questioned their personnel. Observers wondered if they'd even make the Class 6A state tournament, let alone play for a state championship.
But from day one, back in October during preseason conditioning, getting shots up in the Knight Center, running wind sprints ad nauseam, lifting weights religiously, the Jesuit boys basketball team built an armored belief that belied cynicism.
All the volleyed digs and verbal barbs aimed at the Crusaders only fortified their fight for one another. A senior-heavy group that had some of the best organic chemistry one can find in team sports, grew even tighter as the Crusaders exceeded others' expectations. Even as success came in the form of a Metro League championship and a berth in the 6A title game against Jefferson, the disbelief remained. Yet when the chemistry is real and the buy-in to a singular goal is true, no cynic, no negativity, no opponent is powerful enough to overthrow that conviction.
Proving its whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Jesuit quieted its critics once and for all, downing Jefferson 71-66 in the 6A state title game on Saturday at the Chiles Center. Haters be damned, the self-confident Crusaders are the champs.
"We told you so," Jesuit junior Matthew Levis said with a smile. "The only people who believed in us are the people out here wearing these first place medals, the ones who cut down that net. I'm so grateful. This is the most special group of guys I've ever been with. We just connected on such a good level and I'm so glad we got to share this moment with each other. The entire season shaped us and this is our final product."
"They can't be talking now, we got the blue trophy now," Jesuit senior Will Sheaffer said. "We knew we'd be holding this trophy at the end of the year. Nobody else thought we would get this. We proved all of them wrong. There were 15 guys in that locker room that believed and that's all we needed."
"Our locker room is unbelievable, I can call these guys my best friends for the rest of my life," Jesuit senior Aiden Williams said. "I think this is a legacy will live on for a long time. Each one of these guys is so special. They believed in me. I trusted them, they trusted me. It's surreal to find a team that's so cohesive together, put it all on the line and win a state championship."
"Something about that doubt brings people together," Jesuit senior Justin Bieker said. "It fired us up. We play so hard that when we get fired up it just elevated our game to the next level."
As far as grand stages go, it gets no larger than playing in the 6A title game on the Chiles Center floor, especially in a contest that comes down to the fourth quarter. The sellout crowd creates an electric, goosebump-raising sort of vibe that makes your hair stand up on end. It's truly one of the more competitive environments in any state setting because of the high stakes and high-wire ambiance. Both teams put on a show. Jesuit came out guns blazing, jumping out to a 17-12 first quarter, looking comfortable as could be under the white-hot state title spotlight. Williams and Sheaffer both had five points and Roy Bunn hit a three as the Crusaders' confidence carried over from its all-out semifinal clash with Lake Oswego.
"We played our best game of the year tonight," Williams said. "(Jefferson) hit us. We hit them back. That just shows a lot of grit and reliance on each other."
Jesuit led 31-29 at the half as Connor Kollas canned a three and Braden Rice made a short jumper. The Democrats went on an 8-0 third quarter run to claim a 41-35 lead with 3:11 to go in the period, but again Jesuit kept the fight alive, getting big steals and scores from Levis and Bunn and a free throw from Bieker to send the Crusaders into the fourth trailing just 42-40.
And when it comes to shining in the biggest moments, there were arguably no two more important players on the floor than Williams and Bieker in the fourth. The final quarter of their high school careers brought out each competitor's best. Frankly, Jefferson was no match for either. Williams scored 12 points in the fourth, nine of which came from behind the three-point line. Sheaffer found Williams in the corner for a three that tied the game up at 44-44, then Williams had a big and-one three-point play that gave Jesuit a 49-47 lead with 4:50 to go in the fourth.
"I wanted this more than I want to breathe," Williams said. "I love my teammates and the game of basketball so much. I wanted a state championship so bad and I really had to fight for it and play my best game."
Williams' quick trigger might be the fastest on the West Coast. He can square his shoulders to the rim, rise and fire before most defenders can even blink. There were times Jefferson's defenders could probably tell the courtside patrons what Williams ate for his pregame meal because of how close they were to the Crusader marksman. But oftentimes it didn't matter. If Jefferson's hands were down with Williams holding the rock, the Jesuit sniper brought the ball up and flicked it, finding the bottom of the net time and time again. With the contest deadlocked at 49-49, Williams stared down Keylan Vance along the right wing and drilled a deep go-ahead three to reclaim a 52-49 lead. Jefferson countered with two free throws, to come within 52-51, yet Williams answered, drilling a jab step, stand still three from the left wing with Vance inches from his chest to go up 55-51.
"When it came down to clutch shots, Aiden put us on his back again," Levis said. "When one of us is hitting, we keep feeding him, get him open and do whatever we can to help him. It was Aiden making big shots, Sheaffer and I getting stops, Justin hitting clutch shots and the bench hyping us up. If one component doesn't work, the rest of it falls apart."
With each three, the customarily calm Williams let out a bellicose roar toward the Chiles Center ceiling, reveling in a moment he's prepared for his whole life. There's more to Williams' game than just shooting the rock. He proved as such getting into the lane, making slick passes, helping on the boards. But when your gift is shooting the basketball from beyond the arch, there is no need to apologize to any armchair scout sitting on the side. Williams did what he does best in the most critical of moments and Jesuit rode the wave with him.
"Tonight I was in the zone, I was locked in mentally and physically," Williams said. "I just trusted my shot and took it upon myself. People say 'I'm not sure if Aiden should've made this (all-Metro) team or that (all-Metro) team. How good is he? He's not that good. All he can do is shoot.' I really wanted to prove people wrong and win a state championship and go out as a champ."
Bieker was an off the dribble mismatch nightmare for Marcus Tsohonis and the Democrat defense all afternoon. Whether he was isolated on the right or left wing, deploying his patented jab steps to create space for his pet mid-range jumpers or swerving to the hoop for finishes or playing the two-man game with Williams on the perimeter, Bieker was unguardable. The senior southpaw scored 10 of his game-high 22 in the final 2:44 of the fourth and salted the game away by going 8-for-8 at the free throw line. Williams scored 20 points as he and Bieker perfectly complemented one another's game. And guys like Sheaffer (11 points, four assists), Levis (4 points, 2 assists), Rice (4 points, 5 boards), Bunn (5 points) and Kollas (5 points, 2 boards) who came up big all tournament-long didn't shy away from the heat of the moment either. Whether it was spacing the floor for Bieker to drive, finding Williams with a quick ball reversal when he was rolling from deep, knocking down a timely wide open jumper or playing stiff defense in the post or the passing lanes, the less heralded stars stepped in and stepped up. Nobody took a bad shot. Every loose ball seemed to find the hands of Bunn, Rice, Levis or Sheaffer who fought like dogs for extra possessions. There were moments where Jesuit's will to compete and combat was simply stronger than its foe.
"I don't think (Jefferson) wanted to play defense for very long," Williams said. "We knew we could run our sets against them. They chased me, face-guarded me. (Bieker) and I's two-man game worked pretty much all night. We've practiced that since July and it just shows what hard work can do."
Protecting the 55-51 lead, Williams came up with a huge steal and hit ahead pass to Sheaffer who streaked to the rim, finished a righty finger roll and was fouled in the process. The senior point guard marched to the free throw line and polished off the three-point play to make it 58-51 with just over three minutes to go. Down the stretch, Jesuit was the aggressor, judiciously attacking the desperate, lunging, but ultimately lagging Democrats who wildly chased around the Crusaders to no avail. As Jefferson sensed the end was near, Jesuit took advantage of overplays, getting layups from Bieker and Sheaffer as well as two free throws from Bieker to make it 64-53. Jefferson's fullcourt pressure caused a few turnovers and closed Jesuit's lead to 64-58 late, but Bieker was composed at the charity stripe and kept the Democrats at bay by cashing in at the free throw line.
The title was head coach Gene Potter's seventh in a legendary career that's nearly spanned three decades. Potter has been referred to as the "GOAT" for greatest of all time and his job with this crew was certainly exceptional. No coach is more flexible in catering his offensive philosophy to the talent on his roster. No coach can teach a group how to play hard all the time like Potter who continues to preach intensity and doggedness on the defensive end. Potter can push and prod like no other, but he's a player's coach first and foremost as evidenced by the rocking ovation he received cutting the last of the net off the Chiles Center rim. His players wanted to win number seven for him almost as much as they wanted to win it for each other.
So far, Jesuit doesn't have Division One commitment on its roster. The Crusaders' front line wouldn't put the fear of God in any opponent on height and weight dimensions alone. Sheaffer and Williams look like they came off the set of "Hoosiers". Bieker won co-Metro Player of the Year this year but he was more of a role player as a junior. Nobody picked Jesuit to win a state championship before the season began. But Jesuit was a bonded, skilled, selfless brooding unit of fighters clashing for the same cause. Few teams can truly say they maximized their potential, that they squeezed every positive, every ounce of ability from their season and fulfilled whatever promise laid before them. For that, the Crusaders should be commended.
"This shows you don't have to have an ESPN top-100 dude on your team to go win a state championship, you can overcome things that people say you can't do," Williams said.
"We just loved each other," Sheaffer said. "Off the floor, I can't even tell you how good of a time we had. We could just sit around and talk for hours. Everybody just flowed so well. There were no egos on the team. Everybody did it for each other and that's what makes it so great and what makes it go such a long way."
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