The Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders boys basketball team took it on the chin in last year's San Diego Section Division IV championship game against the foreign-talent infused Army-Navy Academy Warriors.
The teams moved up to the Division II level in this year's revised competition-based playoff tier.
The Crusaders clearly earned the No. 1 seed based on their 24-2 regular season finish while the Warriors were seeded fourth, meaning the teams could meet again in the CIF semifinals a year later.
But that didn't happen when Army-Navy met defeat at the hands of 13th-seeded Mt. Carmel in the opening round.
From there, Mater Dei Catholic proved it was indeed the best team in the division, with post-season victories against 16th-seeded Rancho Bernardo (75-43 in the opening round), eighth-seeded Serra (68-43 in the quarterfinals) and Mt. Carmel (75-51 in the semifinals).
The Crusaders placed an exclamation on their championship season with a 55-46 victory against the second-seeded Francis Parker Lancers in Friday's division finale at the University of San Diego's Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“We're excited – we expected to be here,” said MDCHS senior Robert Harris, who dropped in 13 points in the climactic Division II title game. “This is what we played for all season. We're happy to be here.”
The Crusaders, who remained undefeated against section competition, clearly played with a purpose in downing the Lancers (25-5). Mater Dei Catholic (28-2) scored the opening points of the game (on a bucket by senior Israel Seales) and tied the game five-all on a slam dunk by six-foot-six Harris before taking off for a 14-7 first-quarter lead.
The reigning Metro-Mesa League champions led by nine points at halftime, 31-22, and though Francis Parker managed to whittle down the Crusader lead to four points, 33-29, with 4:20 left in the third quarter, one got the distinct impression that this South County behemoth remained in control of the contest.
Despite battling foul trouble – six-foot-six Spencer Vering picked up his fourth personal with 5:16 to play in the third quarter – Mater Dei Catholic managed to build a 39-29 edge on the strength of its free-throw shooting while taking advantage of the Lancers' own foul problems.
Johnathan Dutra picked up his fourth personal foul with 52 seconds to play in the third quarter, relegating another Crusader star to the bench. But Francis Parker remained charitable at the free-throw line and Iman Chatman hit a foul shot in the dying seconds of the quarter to increase the MDCHS lead to 10 points at 39-29.
The Crusader student section livened up the proceedings, especially in the second half. The “I Believe” chant went up in the early moments of the fourth quarter, and the Metro-Mesa champs did not disappoint their festively-garbed and rabid fans.
A deuce and foul shot to complete a three-point play by Harris gave Mater Dei Catholic a 43-29 lead with just over five minutes to play; miscues by the Lancers after that began to play to the Crusaders' fortunes.
A pair of free-throws by Dutra, back in the game, extended the MDCHS edge on the scoreboard to 45-29 with 4:58 to play in the contest.
Chatman sank a pair of foul shots with 4:01 left to extend the Crusader lead to 49-31 and the championship countdown was on.
An acrobatic lay-in by freshman guard Jaylen Hands put the score at 52-38 with 2:08 left.
The Crusaders led 53-40 with 1:40 to play in the game.
Francis Parker's 6-foot-10 senior play-maker Evan Fitnzer fouled out with 1:35 left. He finished with a team-high 16 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
“This game's over!” MDCHS fans began chanting with one minute to go, and exactly 59.4 seconds after Dutra took his turn at the charity stripe, it was.
Harris tacked on the Division II champions' final point at the foul line with 12.2 seconds to play.
The division championship was a great gift for the Crusaders' five senior starters. Harris suggested the team's senior-heavy line-up was a key difference in capturing this year's CIF title.
“Since we're all seniors, we knew this was it,” Harris said. “We were locked into it.”
“We're happy,” added Chatman, who collected seven points. “We did it – there's not much else to say.”
Chatman's satisfied smile said it all, however.
Hands, whose game has shown brightly in the playoffs, led the Crusaders with 16 points while Seales had 11 points and Dutra collected eight points.
Rebound leaders for MDCHS included Harris with 15 (tops for both teams), six by Hands and five each by Seales and Chatman. Seales led the winners with three blocks while Chatman collected a team high three steals.
Khaleel Jenkins, who played quarterback for Francis Parker's football team, scored 12 points while Andrew Cross had nine points.
The Crusaders sank 21 of 35 foul shots and piled up 47 rebounds; the Lancers hit 14 of 20 foul shots and collected 33 rebounds.
Could a regional or state title be in the offing for this MDCHS boys squad? The Crusaders will find out when they continue their journey next week.
Matrer Dei Catholic received the No. 4 seed in the 16-team Division II regional draw and will host 13th-seeded Tustin (22-8) in Wednesday's opening round. The winner advances to Saturday's quarterfinals. Semifinal-round games are scheduled Tuesday, March 18, followed by the SoCal championship game on Saturday, March 22. The state final is Saturday, March 29 in Sacramento.