The tears began to flow late in the fourth quarter on the St. Helena bench.
First, it was Andrea Hernandez. Then, Citlali Garcia. Soon, the rest of the Saints’ bench was wiping at their eyes.
“Seeing them cry made me cry,” said Lisa Lord, one of the five seniors who played their final home game at St. Helena High on Tuesday night. “It was like emotional dominoes.”
Yes, it was the Saints’ Senior Night on Tuesday, and while the Saints didn’t pick up the win, they displayed the grit and intensity that have become hallmarks of this year’s team even as another tumultuous season comes to a close.
As has happened throughout this season, a close early game got out of hand by halftime on Tuesday and Fort Bragg went on to win going away, 66-42. But another trend was evident on Tuesday, and that was the fight and determination that St. Helena displayed for all 32 minutes.
Even down 20 in the fourth quarter, the Saints gave every bit of energy they had, especially the five seniors who looked as determined as ever to finish this season on a high note.
Unfortunately, that result didn’t materialize and the Saints fell to 4-20 on the season and 0-13 in North Central League I play.
But even in the face of another winless league go-around, the five Saints’ seniors aren’t as worried with the result on the scoreboard. A win would have been nice, but Tuesday was more so about reflecting on careers and enjoying the last moments of high school basketball.
“Even though we’re not the best team out there we still never give up and that’s one of our big traits as a team, is that we never give up,” said Citlali Garcia, who scored eight points on Tuesday. “Even as hard as we try and as bad as we sometimes lose by, we always keep our heads in the game and know that we’re playing for fun and all have a strong connection with each other. That’s why I’m on the team.”
Her sentiment was echoed by interim head coach Dave Pauls, who stepped in to coach the Saints several weeks ago after head coach Darol Smith suffered a knee injury and had to undergo surgery. Pauls has coached the Saints for most of the second-half of the league season.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re down by 20 or 40 or whatever, it doesn’t change the way they play,” Pauls said. “So, I knew that they were going to bring their best effort tonight and they did. They made Fort Bragg work for their win.”
The absence of Smith has become the norm since Pauls took over, but Smith’s sudden exit certainly had an effect on the team. It was his first season coaching the varsity team and they doubled their win total from last season – from two to four – in his first month-plus on the job.
“It was definitely out of nowhere and no one was expecting it so it hit us a little harder,” Lord said.
It’s safe to say that Smith would’ve been proud with his team’s effort on Tuesday had he been in attendance. The Saints scrapped and fought till the final buzzer sounded, and then the tears came.
That was different from how the evening began. The five Saints honored in a brief pregame ceremony — Hernandez, Garcia and Lord as well as Jovana Rodriguez and Elizabeth Garcia — were focused on the task at hand. And even as the game slipped further away, the hustle and motivation never dwindled.
In the postgame scrum of families, friends, coaches and players, the Saints finally reflected on their time in a Saints’ uniform.
“We’re really positive,” said Elizabeth Garcia. “Even when we lose, we find ways to stick together and cheer each other up and talk about how we still tried our hardest and did our best.
“Even though we lost, it was still a good experience. I’m happy that we all played together,” she added.
Rodriguez had a similar takeaway.
“I wish we got the win but we played hard so I’m happy,” she said.