Without football and only modest showings in the other sports they play, the Cardinals weren’t on many radar screens outside of the teams that couldn’t wait to put a fledgling program on their schedules.
They are not irrelevant any more.
Going into this weekend’s opening to the Calhoun County Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville State, the Cardinals’ boys team is turning heads with a young head coach and an even younger team, a circumstance that has one player projecting they should be “dominating” once they all get older.
At 16-4, they have one of the best records in the county this season — strong enough to draw a No. 4 tournament seed — and are undefeated against county competition (7-0), including wins over bigger and more tradition-rich programs like Alexandria and Jacksonville.
Combine that with the volleyball team’s run to the Class 1A Final Four in October, and the school appears on the cusp of having an athletics program that can’t be ignored any longer.
“It has been a work in progress,” athletics director Charlie Maniscalco said. “I can remember when we first came here, we were not competitive whatsoever in any of the sports and we hired some people who have come in and worked with the kids and talked to the kids and just done a wonderful job with them.”
Even the architect of that new-found basketball success, 27-year-old head coach Ralpheal Graves, was among those who dismissed Sacred Heart as an athletics entity before taking the job — his first as a head coach — at the urging of one of the school’s grandparents.
He held the same indifference about small private schools in general — and teams with junior-high-age players among their regulars — but his experiences and study of basketball on a national scale has changed his opinion greatly.
It’s not lost on him that NBA star Kevin Durant went to a small Christian school and that DeMatha Catholic in suburban D.C. has long been regarded as a national basketball hotbed. In terms of practical experience, he remembered when he coached at Anniston the way Faith Christian “took it to us, big time” and he saw state power Butler extend its strong tradition with eighth- and ninth-graders in the lineup.
“I never really thought it would turn out the way that it did,” Graves said after a recent win at Munford. “I was always one of the ones who’d say the private schools are irrelevant, but then, being exposed to more basketball, the private schools are good.
“Here the private schools are the schools that people just push to the side like, ‘OK, if he can’t make it at the public school, send him to the private school, he can play there; that’s like a B team or a junior varsity. Now, here we are saying it doesn’t really matter what school you’re at. If you can play, you can play.”
Make no mistake, the players on Graves’ roster have proven they could play. The only thing the Cardinals seem to lack is age, and that hasn’t seemed to be as big a problem as it could be. They’ve only lost to three teams this season — veteran-rich Ragland (twice, 69-68 and 60-53), which could be a bad sign at state tournament time, and 4As Oneonta (59-49) and Lincoln (68-66).
The Cardinals have only one senior and their starting lineup features one seventh-grader, three eighth-graders and a tenth-grader. Just don’t tell them how old they are — or aren’t.
“I’m a basketball player when I get on the court,” said eighth grader D.J. Heath, now in his second year with the program. “They put their jerseys on just like I do.
“It’s fun beating the older players, going out there and playing against schools that have reps and trying to compete with schools that have reps and trying to make our own rep.”
Graves knows a little something about what it takes to put a winning team on the floor. He was an early-season starter on Anniston High’s 2002 state championship team and was on the coaching staff when the Bulldogs won it again in 2009.
And he does have a good understanding of his players. His day job is as a program aid at the new Aquatic and Fitness Center at McClellan, but he grew up playing and later coaching in the Anniston Parks and Recreation programs at Carver Center, where he would watch many of the players he has on the court today developing their games as 6- and 7-year-olds.
Those players likely would have been headed into the pipeline to Anniston if the opportunity to attend Sacred Heart wasn’t presented to them. Now, they might have a chance to play the Bulldogs if the bracket falls right, and it wouldn’t surprise some if they held their own.
“Ralpheal has always been a kid who has been a leader,” Anniston PARD director Steven Folks said. “He’s a caring person who not only teaches basketball, but he teaches standards as well. He was a rough character coming up himself, but he always took in what he was taught by adults. It doesn’t amaze me what he’s doing there at all. He’s always been a winner.”
Graves wasn’t really sure if the parents thought enough of him to let their players follow him to Sacred Heart, but they came right along. Most likely would have been headed into the pipeline to Anniston if the opportunity to attend Sacred Heart wasn’t presented to them.
And he says now he wasn’t even sure school officials knew he was coming to interview when he finally relented to a supporter’s persistence. He simply got his resume together, put on a bow tie and blazer and was patiently waiting on a bench when Maniscalco pulled into his parking space.
The rest, as they say ...
“It was kind of ironic,” Maniscalco said. “I’d seen Ralpheal before; he used to open the doors for us (when the Cardinals practiced at Miller Gym) and he’d watch our practices when Pat (Hughes) was the coach, and I really liked what I saw in his attitude and work ethic.
“When we had the opportunity to hire Ralpheal it really put a spark in our basketball program. He has created really big interest in our school and all of them have given us school pride, something we needed desparately. Academically we’re very strong; it takes athletics to create school pride. That’s something we were trying to get at and, to be honest with you, hiring the right people has created the buzz.”
Ask people connected with the school where the basketball team is headed and they see a bright future. Maniscalco called its potential “unlimited.” The Cardinals might not win the County Tournament this week, but that might just be a matter of time.
“You don’t know what can happen,” Graves said. “We are relevant now. We might’ve never won a game in the county (tournament) before, but as a coach I don’t get into all that. I just understand we play at Sacred Heart and (success) is a matter of how we play.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.