Todd Johnson walks out of the St. John Neumann locker room with a towel covering his head. With his high-school basketball career ending two days earlier than expected, the forward is too upset to talk. He gives coach Carl Arrigale a season-ending hug, then proceeds to walk out of La Salle University’s Tom Gola Arena.
Losing 70-60 to Cardinal Dougherty in last Thursday’s Catholic League semifinal game came as a shock to Neumann. The two-time defending champions had already set the bar so high, any season that didn’t end with cutting down the net would have been a disappointment.
"I haven’t been in this position very often in the last couple years," said Arrigale, whose last playoff loss came in the 2000 championship game to Roman Catholic. "I’ve forgotten what it was like."
It was the first-ever postseason defeat for this group of Neumann players. When the local squad lost in the 2000 title game, the members of this team were either underclassmen or still in middle school.
Senior Kevin Lauer said this year’s result caught the Pirates off guard.
"We are so used to winning around here that losing is tough on us," Lauer said. "I didn’t want to lose my senior year. That hurt the most."
For much of the game, it didn’t look as if it would end this way.
The Pirates established a 15-point lead late in the second quarter, and went into halftime holding a 36-23 edge.
After struggling to pull one out against Roman Catholic in the quarterfinals, Neumann appeared to be back in control. All the squad needed was another solid 16 minutes, and the Pirates would earn the chance to play St. Joseph’s Preparatory High in the title game and avenge their only two regular-season losses.
But when the second half began, Neumann didn’t look like a team hungry for another championship. Taking advantage of its opponent’s lackluster start, the Dougherty players began to rally. They began to play like the team they were — Northern Division champs with a 14-0 regular-season mark.
That was bad news for Neumann.
Dougherty got within three points late in the third quarter, and trailed 52-45 heading into the fourth.
This wasn’t the strategy Arrigale had discussed with his players at halftime. Instead of rebounding and sharing the ball, the coach noticed his team playing a very tight and passive second half.
"I don’t have the answers," he said. "It wasn’t what I was telling them to do, that’s for sure. I guess being the coach, I’ve got to take some of the blame because whatever it takes, I’ve got to find the way."
With 4:18 remaining, the Cardinals tied the game at 55, and the Pirates never recovered. Dougherty outscored Neumann 24-8 in the fourth quarter, giving the Pirates plenty to analyze after the game.
"They just came out and played harder than us," senior Antwain Wynn said. "I knew they were going to come back with a last punch. I didn’t step up to the challenge."
Lauer, who is considering Holy Family College, agreed that his team’s second-half effort was missing something.
"I just feel like they wanted it more than us," Lauer said. "They just got so many offensive rebounds, and we weren’t doing a good job of boxing out."
As a result, the Pirates found themselves sitting at home on championship night wondering what had happened. How could they let such a commanding lead slip away? Would they have been able to beat the Prep — who won its first Catholic League title since 1971 on Saturday — when it counted the most?
The returning players will have all of next season to ponder such questions.
This year’s seniors are reflecting on the glory of previous years as they prepare for college.
"It was a great experience being on two championship teams in a row," Lauer said. "I can’t wait to go to college and leave the same way."
Junior Richard Cunningham led the Pirates with 15 points and seven assists, while senior Kenny Fulton added 12 points and junior Adon El had 11. Arrigale will have the two junior starters back to make another run at the title next season.
"We don’t do this to lose in the semifinals," Arrigale said. "We do it to try and win it all."
They have the track record to prove it.