Je'Lani Clark, Bryce Monroe and Mor Seck were among the biggest talents and brightest personalities as the Riordan Crusaders captivated audiences around the Bay Area.
Kyle Dayanghirang

Unwritten: The story of Riordan basketball

March 21, 2020

When the Riordan Crusaders defeated Valley Christian on February 4, the school’s band wasn’t at the game due to a scheduling conflict. Instead, the student in charge of the school’s DJ club provided the music, and with the team dancing after a comfortable win, he played Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” which quickly became the team’s post-victory anthem.

As it turned out, the song wouldn’t just be a popular celebration for one of the most talented and most talked-about teams in San Francisco basketball history. The ending of the team’s season would also be unwritten, halted in its quest for a state championship by the coronavirus outbreak.

Less than an hour before the Crusaders were supposed to tip off against De La Salle on Saturday, March 7, players and officials were sent home after it was revealed that a parent of a student had the COVID-19 virus. Plans were initially made for the teams to play at De La Salle on the following Monday night, but after test results that were finished Sunday night revealed that the student, not a basketball player but a member of other teams in the school’s athletic department, had tested positive as well, the team was informed on Monday that the season was cut short. Though the outbreak would end up canceling the state championships, Campolindo ended up playing the Spartans for the Northern California title. The Cougars, who Riordan had beaten in December, ended up being crowned as regional champions.

“As soon as it came out that our kid was tested positive, we knew it was going to be tough to find a pathway to play the game, knowing our kids were exposed to it,” principal Tim Reardon explained. “We didn’t want to play into a lot of the hysteria that was going on out there.”

The chain of events meant that the Crusaders finished their season with a record of 23-5. They went 11-3 in WCAL play, sharing the league championship with Bellarmine and Mitty. A loss to St. Francis in the CCS Open Division Quarterfinals prevented any chance of a rematch with the other two league co-champions. As the top seed in the Northern California bracket in Division I, Riordan defeated Modesto Christian 82-51 and Vanden 76-62, but the season ended without a proper conclusion.

“This season did more to bring our school together than just about anything that’s happened besides the new football field,” Reardon said. “People went crazy for this team. We’re gonna do everything we can to try to celebrate the WCAL championship, and we’re going to make sure the kids know how much we appreciate their year.”

With a passionate alumni base at a school with a rich basketball history, including a state championship in 2002, fans certainly did go crazy for the Crusaders, measured best by the repeated near-capacity crowds at home games and the team’s visit to St. Ignatius, a game rivaled in attendance only by a crosstown NorCal semifinal the Wildcats had played against Mission in 2017.

“I loved the diversity this team had,” said videographer George Nguyen, who chronicled the team throughout the year. “You had kids from different parts of the Bay and the world. I felt like everyone had genuine love for one another like brothers, and despite coming together at the last minute, they made it work for the most part and were about to do something very special for the City.”

Nguyen made mixtapes and highlight videos of the team throughout the season, showcasing not only the players’ best moments, but also their personalities, as summed up in a video combining players dancing with highlights of Japanese reserve Toyo Kano’s performance at the end of that win over Valley Christian, one that would encapsulate the team’s charisma.

“We’re not just an ordinary team. We’re a group of friends that just happened to be on the same team,” said Chan Ngot, who came to Riordan from South Sudan.

After the victory over Vanden, another game that the band was unable to attend, they danced to “Unwritten” yet again, punctuating what would turn out to be their final game together. As the group of teenage boys from four different countries and all sorts of different backgrounds danced to a mid-2000s pop song in a scene that only made sense to those who followed the team closely, none of them knew it would be their final game.

“Ending the season with a big win in front of our home crowd and celebrating with what became our customary dance party along with the student cheering section, I can’t think of a more fitting ending to our season, given all the other circumstances,” third-year head coach Joey Curtin said.

What was, both literally and figuratively, a banner year for the Crusaders could have been so much more, and not just because of the premature ending. A year that started with buzz of winning the school its first outright league title since 1990 and possibly representing Northern California in the Open Division Championship Game against the likes of Sierra Canyon meant there was little margin for error and tremendous pressure.

“All year, we were winning big games and competing, but every time we lost the critics would come in and question everything we were doing,” said Bryce Monroe, a Sam Houston State commit who joined the program after spending his first two years at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

While nonleague play got off to a promising start, with a 9-1 record that included a Crusader Classic championship and a third-place finish at Gridley, the harsh nature of the WCAL got to Riordan quickly with a two-point home loss to Serra. The Crusaders snapped out of the funk the Serra loss created by winning nine straight, with a victory in front of one of the largest crowds to pack St. Ignatius’ McCullough Gym in years, their first victory at Mitty since 2002 and their first win at Serra in 11 years to help them take over first place in the league, a position they held all by themselves with four games remaining.

“Man, it was a great feeling, just seeing the program grow since I was a freshman,” said Nevada commit Je’Lani Clark, a four-year starter who had been focused on ending those road losing streaks.

Even after a loss at Bellarmine, the Crusaders still had first place all to themselves thanks to Mitty’s loss to seventh-place St. Ignatius. A home win over the Monarchs would have all but locked up the league title, but Mitty got 31 points from Arrish Bhandal, including the winning basket in the final seconds to create a three-way tie for first place.

“I just wish we didn’t get so comfortable during the season,” Clark said.

Suddenly, Riordan needed to hold serve just to win a share of the crown for the first time since 2007, which they did with a seven-point win at St. Francis and a Senior Night victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral that circulated nationally on Twitter as team manager Dominic Stevens entered the game in the final minutes and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, a reward for five weeks of workouts with trainer Ryan Jones.

“That not only represented the team but the school as a whole,” Curtin said of Stevens’ moment in the spotlight. “We really are about brotherhood and accepting everyone. I’m glad so many people got to see that in its purest form.”

As much of a thrilling high as the combination of claiming a share of the league championship and Stevens’ big night were, things quickly came crashing down for the Crusaders less than 72 hours later in a stunning loss to St. Francis in the CCS Open Division Quarterfinals, a game in which they never led. With the defeat, the team’s hopes for the first Open Division crown in program history came to a screeching halt, along with their hopes of getting the last laugh against Bellarmine and Mitty as well as the plans to play in the Open Division against the state level against the likes of Sheldon and Sierra Canyon.

Nine days later, a silver lining appeared for Riordan. The CCS quarterfinal loss did indeed knock them out of contention to play in the CIF Open Division, but the seeding committee deemed them as the top team outside of the five in the Open Division across all of Northern California, labeling them as the top seed in Division I. Suddenly, they had a clear road to a state title game, needing to just defend their home court in order to play on California’s biggest stage.

That run got off to a great start, with a 31-point thrashing of a Modesto Christian team that Riordan had beaten by 14 in the regular season, with Riiny Riiny scoring a career-high 21 points. Riiny was one of four international players on the roster, representing South Sudan along with Ngot, his cousin. The aforementioned Kano represented Japan while seven-foot sophomore Mor Seck hailed from Senegal.

“Working with them was the best part of my day,” said assistant coach John Tofi, a member of Riordan’s 2002 state championship team who focused on working with the centers and forwards. “Every day at practice was an adventure. Not only the different nationalities, but the different personalities. Not one player was the same.”

When any of those bigs or domestic talents Robert Vaihola or Dominic Wilson stepped up to accompany the excellent guards, Riordan was all but unstoppable. Two nights later, the Crusaders got a second-half explosion to beat Vanden with Monroe scoring 32 points and Vaihola finishing two points shy of a double-double to pull away after Vikings star Teiano Hardee broke his hand.

It was a difficult end to an illustrious high school career for Hardee, a Sacramento State commit and AAU teammate of Monroe’s, but the way Riordan’s season came to an end would be just as gut-wrenching. Their game against De La Salle was first postponed, then rescheduled, then ultimately canceled, ending their season without a chance to win a Northern California championship. As the virus turned into a national pandemic, other teams saw their seasons end for medical reasons rather than on the court as well, but most at least had the chance to play for regional crowns. Of the basketball and soccer teams around the state that had their seasons ended by the virus, it would be hard to find one with anywhere near as much attention as the Crusader hoopers.

“Despite the way the season ended, they did do something special,” Nguyen said. “They’ll be compared to every other team that comes along the way to debate if they could even compete against this Riordan team.”

Unfortunately, those debates will be only hypothetical. The next great San Francisco team to go on a big state tournament run will be compared to what the Crusaders might have done, rather than what they were able to achieve on a grand stage. One of the most popular teams in San Francisco history, one that had so much hype that even a single loss seemed like a catastrophic blow, one that brought a school and alumni base together with exceptional talent, boisterous personalities and some global flair, would leave with the final chapter of its story unwritten.

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