Cardinal Newman’s road to glory was not an easy one.
Injuries, a brutal December schedule and a tough adjustment to a new coaching philosophy were telling factors that combined to make for some unpleasant times during the first two months of the season.
But it all fell into place for the Cardinals down the stretch, culminating in a three-game sweep at the SCISA Class 3A state tournament in Sumter that netted the program’s first state championship in 18 years.
“You certainly don’t want to downplay any part of the season, but our goal was to be playing our best basketball at the tournament,” first-year coach David Ross said. “Fortunately, we had time to get everybody on the same page and things started to click. The goal of every team is to play its best when it matters the most. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it did for us. We were healthy, committed to the team goal and we executed the plan.”
Ross said the turnaround came during preparation for the second meeting with region rival Hammond on Feb 5. The low point of the season for the Cardinals was a 64-48 home loss to the Skyhawks in January.
“We finally had our full lineup for the first time all season, and we stressed that we didn’t have much time left to get it together,” Ross said. “We had to have a sense of urgency and focus for every game, every practice. And I guess that blowout was in the back of everybody’s minds, too. Whatever the reason, we were locked from that point.”
Indeed, Cardinal Newman defeated Hammond, 48-47, in overtime and never lost again. The season-ending six-game winning streak concluded with a 61-45 romp over Hammond in the state championship game.
“We had some difficult times, but we never lost faith in the coaches or ourselves,” said senior Jacob August, who provided veteran leadership along with his best friend, Austin Ajukwa. “We were expected to win when Austin and I were sophomores and juniors, but it never happened. We had one goal this season. Once we got all our players back and adjusted to coach Ross’ system, we were confident we would finally get over the hump. And it feels pretty great.”
Taking care of unfinished business also was the case for Ross, who was a Cardinals assistant for eight seasons before taking over the head job.
“I’m thankful that the guys were willing to make some hard adjustments, and I was hardest of all on Austin,” he said. “I’m sure there were a lot of days when I wasn’t the most popular guy around. But they bought into what we (coaches) were telling them would be successful, and we did it as a team”
The Clemson-bound Ajukwa capped his high school career with 34 points in a semifinal win over Porter-Gaud and scored 23 in the title-clincher. He leaves as the leading career scorer in program history.