COLORADO SPRINGS. For St. Mary’s High School boys basketball coach Jim Masterson, basketball is more than a game — it’s a way to teach faith. The motto of the team is “win or lose, give glory to God.” That idea was tested this year as the team experienced an undefeated season that carried them to the state championship game only to lose in the title game. While the disappointment of the defeat still stings, Masterson and his team are grounded in faith and looking toward the future.
The 2021 season was extraordinary in several ways. The Pirates finished the season No. 1 in scoring in Colorado and No. 3 in scoring in the nation. Of course, their undefeated record going into the state title game was amazing. Add to that the fact that challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the accomplishments are even greater.
“I’ve never had a season like this one in my life. We play a fast-paced game and having to wear masks during games and practices was challenging for our team,” Masterson said. “We had a delayed and shortened season that was experienced in person by only our players’ families. Usually the team gains energy from the crowd but this season, they had to create their own energy.”
The team’s motto and culture of faith has helped them move past the disappointment and look to the future. Junior Sam Howery, who along with Luke Stockelman was recently named to the 3A All-State team, said while the team is still hungry to accomplish its goal of winning a title, they are proud of what they have accomplished this season.
“Of course we’re sad we weren’t able to finish,” Howery said. “We’re proud, though, of getting to the title game and of all the accomplishments we had during the season. Coach Masterson’s approach has brought us closer to each other and to God.”
Masterson’s ultimate goal for the game aligns with the goal James Naismith had when he invented the game in 1891. While, as the famous story goes, he was charged with creating an indoor game that would bridge the winter gap between football and baseball, ultimately his desire for the game was bigger. Naismith said he hoped “to win men for the Master through the gym.”
For Masterson, basketball is the tool used to grow the faith of his players. In his fourth year at St. Mary’s and just finishing his 49th year of coaching, Masterson said he is happy to be back coaching in a Catholic environment where he said he can “openly and honestly live out my life of faith.” His job at St. Mary’s takes him back to his Catholic school roots, where he started coaching in California while he was in college.
Faith plays a big role in the life of Masterson’s teams. Each day at practice, Masterson shares a Thought of the Day, which includes the reading of the day from which he chooses one thing from the reading to talk about with the team. Once practice is over the team bundles in the Winner’s Meeting, where they talk about an idea from the Winner’s Manual that Masterson has for the team. The Winner’s Manual is divided into two parts — Do Your Best and Do What’s Right — and contains instruction about how the players can be winners in life. Prayer starts and finishes both practices and games, with the opposing team’s players invited to join in the prayer circle after games.
“One of my fondest memories from my time coaching at St. Mary’s was from last year after we played Manitou Springs in their gym,” Masterson said. “Obviously this is a big rivalry game and between the two schools we had hundreds of students there supporting their teams. But once the game was over, both student bodies joined together for the prayer circle. There must have been 500 people in the prayer circle that night.”
This season the Pirates defeated the Mustangs during the regular season only to face them again in postseason play. Before the post-season game, one of Manitou Springs players was quoted in the local newspaper as saying the Mustangs were going to decisively beat the Pirates in the post-season game. When the game was over, and St. Mary’s again came out with a win, a photographer from the paper captured two St. Mary’s players — Sam Howery and Cyrus Hernandez — consoling the same Manitou player who had spoken out against them. While Masterson does use intentional avenues to build the faith of his team members, he said informal ways of living out faith are just as important.
“We talk with our players about what their purpose is on Earth,” Masterson said. “What passions and talents did God give you? How can you use those to always do your best and do what’s right? If Jesus Christ is the center of your life, everything you do emanates from that because it is at the core of who you are.”
Coach Pete Gvazdauskas, known as Coach Vaz, organizes a Bible study that the teams do when they travel to away games. He plans a reading of scripture accompanied by four or five questions and then has one of the players lead the study. Masterson said the players do a wonderful job leading the studies and stepping up to lead prayers.
“Our team is so accepting of each other,” he said. “I think that’s why the players don’t feel awkward leading the studies or saying prayers. Sam Howery is great at this because he uses a ‘popcorn’ method that gets everyone on the bus involved in answering the questions.”
Howery said that the coaches’ methods have certainly allowed him to grow in his faith. While leading Bible studies and prayers often moves the players out of their comfort zones, Howery said the focus on faith and prayer is like nothing he has experienced in many years of playing basketball.
“Coach Masterson pushes all of us to grow closer to God,” Howery said. “We’re a brotherhood and the focus on community helps us all as we lead prayer or Bible studies and become leaders ourselves. It really comes easy when you get to live out the faith with your best friends.”
While the season ended on a disappointing note, Masterson said he and the other coaches didn’t dwell on it. The team has a lot to be proud of this season, he said, having accomplished something no St. Mary’s team has in 60 years. As a coach, Masterson said a state title is always a goal and this year was the first time in his career that his team has played in the championship game.
“Of course, losing the championship game was painful,” Masterson said. “But we had a wonderful season and God has a purpose for everything. We have no idea how this disappointment could be an opportunity that helps us down the road.”
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)