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No Heart

Calhoun County basketball tourney moves on without a top draw

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Sacred Heart played Jacksonville during the quarterfinal round of the Calhoun County basketball tournament Thursday night at Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

The 70th Calhoun County basketball tournament will play out against a pandemic backdrop, but with absence more notable than the normal crowds.

Capacity limits, set at 720 a game, imposed sparseness on the county’s biggest championship for high school sports. A stunning decision claimed what had become one of the tournament’s top draws.

The first county basketball tournament since Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School dropped sports in May starts Saturday at Saks High School. Games continue next week in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.

Sacred Heart coaches have moved on, and former Cardinal players found new schools. A handful transferred to Anniston, the top seeds for the boys’ and girls’ fields. Ex-Cardinals also play for Donoho, Jacksonville, Oxford and Saks.

Some have become impactful players on their new teams.

Not all fans across the county’s 14 schools still playing varsity basketball will miss Sacred Heart, but all will feel the Cardinals’ absence. Their seven-year run, which included eight combined appearances in the boys and girls county finals and four state championships in boys basketball, left an indelible mark.

“It is a different feel,” long-time White Plains boys’ coach Chris Randall said. “They had become such a fixture and dominated a lot of the headlines.

“It is a little different field. It’s odd.”

Sacred brand

How to define what Sacred Heart basketball became?

Quen Williams announced the Cardinals’ rise as a contender, swishing a fall-away 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left to beat Class 6A Oxford in the 2014 county semifinals. A year later, Sacred Heart beat 5A Alexandria to become the first 1A team to win the county title.

That 2014 finals appearance became the first of six in as many years, and the Cardinals won county titles in 2015 and 2018.

They carried that success on to the state level, reaching six straight Final Fours and tying a state record with four straight 1A championships. They lost to Central Coosa 54-52 in their final title-game appearance in 2019.

“We rewrote the pecking order in Calhoun County basketball,” said former Sacred Heart boys coach Ralpheal Graves, now the head boys varsity coach at Huntsville’s Mae Jemison High School. “Unfortunately, it’s not available to our county anymore.

“Our county needed that, and basketball needed it, also, especially in such a football-driven area. Sacred Heart was a dynasty.”

The girls’ program was coming under Marcus Harrell. He led the Cardinals to their first two area titles, first two Northeast Regional appearances and two county finals. They lost to Anniston in 2019 and 2020.

“You miss the competitive nature of it,” said Eddie Bullock, who has coached Anniston’s girls to 11 of their 20 county titles. “They were going to be in the mix.”

However, defining Sacred Heart’s aura by tangible results only narrows the picture. Between 2014-2020, they were to Calhoun County basketball what the late John Thompson’s Georgetown teams were to major-college basketball in the 1980s.

They had an unbeatable air. Their brute dominance showed most against same-classified competition, who had the misfortune to lie on their road to state-level success.

Names mattered. The rare trio of forward Diante Wood plus guards Kevion Nolan and D.J. Heath took beatings as seventh-and eighth-graders then started avenging themselves as eighth-graders and freshmen.

Heath, who ran the point, could drive and shoot. Same for Wood, who could play with his back and face to the basket, and Nolan’s 3-point mastery made it almost unfair.

Put a couple of good role players around them — Graves called them “glue guys” — and Sacred Heart became the 1A team that matched and even beat 7A teams.

The terrific trio was that good, and all four of Sacred Heart’s state titles came when at least one on the Cardinals’ roster. Heath and Nolan graduated a year ahead of Wood, who signed with Alabama out of high school.

Jayden Stone transferred from Birmingham’s Central Park Christian before the 2018-19 season, giving Sacred Heart one more season with a sure college prospect to feed the ball. He led the way as the Cardinals made their final run to Birmingham.

Through it all, Sacred Heart became must-watch basketball in Calhoun County, helping to fill Pete Mathews Coliseum for county semifinals and finals. Students formed a mini-Mountain Brook swag section, clad in black and neon behind one basket, and their draw extended beyond those directly connected to the school.

“Sacred Heart brought excitement, competition, excellence and basketball standard to Calhoun County,” Graves said. “It was one of the only places where the administration, coaches, kids, education and environment was in complete alignment to be successful.

“We raised the bar. Everyone wanted to be us or beat us.”

Indeed, Sacred Heart basketball had detractors. Whispers about how a private K-12 school with 40-something high-school-age kids acquired such a collection of basketball talent grew louder.

Most famously, Ricky Austin, coach of then-area rival Spring Garden, bluntly raised questions in a Northeast Regional postgame news conference.

Alabama High School Athletic Association representatives came inquiring on multiple occasions. Graves and members of his Sacred Heart coaching staff have acknowledged as much on social media.

For the record, the AHSAA never announced sanctions against Sacred Heart.

Also for the record, Graves fed detractors to Cardinal fans with occasional public brashness. A West Anniston native and former Anniston High player and assistant coach, he knew his base and matched Sacred Heart’s moment.

Eight months after the school’s May announcement about dropping sports, those involved in Sacred Heart’s hoop-dreams years relish what Graves called “a great ride.”

“Our kids and coaches talk daily about how great of a time we had,” he said. “Hopefully, the kids who stayed at Sacred Heart and transferred … can get the same thing they got there, at their new school.

“In about 5-7 years, we will see. We should judge a tree by its fruit.”

Missing Heart

Graves moved on to Mae Jemison, and Harrell now coaches Ranburne’s varsity boys. Of their former players, four boys and four girls graduated last year. Count 2020 seniors Myiah Harris and Jordan Sabree, now with Southern Union Community College, among the 10 former Cardinals playing sports collegiately.

Caleb Brown plays football, a freshman defensive back for Kennesaw State University. The other nine play basketball.

Anniston’s Serena Hardy was a 2020 All-Calhoun County and all-county-tournament pick for Sacred Heart. She held now-teammate Allasha Dudley, the reigning Alabama Sports Writers Association 4A player of the year, to seven points in the final.

As a Sacred Heart player challenging Anniston, Hardy felt the sense of rivalry.

“That’s what everybody was wanting to see,” she said. “I had to bring what I had to bring.”

Hardy and former Cardinals teammate Alisia Person, another all-county player in 2020, hope to be two reasons Anniston continues its county dominance.

The adjustment was easiest for Hardy, now a freshman guard who returned to Anniston after two years of Sacred Heart. She had played in Bullock’s program on the lower levels.

Person had journeyed from Cleburne County to Sacred Heart and then Anniston. More of a spot-up shooter, she had to adjust to Anniston’s up-tempo style after two years at Sacred Heart.

She said she’s “catching on,” and the chemistry she feels with her new team has helped.

“I’m fitting more with the team I’m with now than with Sacred Heart,” she said. “We weren’t as bonded, but, here at Anniston, we’re more bonded. We play better as a team. Everybody’s on the same page.”

New/old faces have become teammates for the former Cardinals now with other schools. Fitting in has given way to roles, and basketball is basketball again.

They’ve come a long way from that day in May, when Sacred Heart announced a school rebranding that would not include varsity sports. The announcement brought shock on the county high school sports scene, but not as much for some involved.

“I kind of saw it coming, because the new staff they had in, they didn’t really like sports,” Person said.

Taishun Hall, a senior guard who’s journey from Cleburne County to Sacred Heart to Anniston mirrored Person’s, said it took a while to set in.

“I didn’t believe it at all, but I called Coach Ralph,” he said. “He answered the phone crying, and that’s when I kind of knew they took sports away.”

Hall considered transferring to Oxford, Saks and Anniston before becoming a Bulldog. The move gave him the chance to rekindle with football, a sport Sacred Heart didn’t offer.

He played football at Cleburne County from fourth grade to his freshman year, when he moved. A 1A-3A first-team all-county basketball guard last season, he became a second-team 4A-6A all-county wide receiver this past fall.

“That was real fun,” he said. “I’m not going to say I wish I’d left Sacred Heart earlier, but I wish I would’ve played football my whole high school career.”

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.