Behind Calvary Christian’s journey to its first state championship. (Photo: Sun Sentinel)
By: Jesse Nadelman- Staff Writer
SIXTEEN YEARS removed from hoisting a trophy with Dillard, Cilk McSweeney and Steve Allen return to the court at the Lakeland Center to check out the scene two hours before tip. It’s their first steps on this hardwood since winning a state championship as players with Dillard back in 2001. It’s the same scene, same stage.
But this time is different.
This time, it’s just after 8 A.M. on Saturday, March 4th, and Allen and McSweeney are looking to win state titles from another perspective: As coaches.
Their opponent, Tampa Catholic, is headlined by Kevin Knox, a five-star prospect that is rated as the top player in the state of Florida and number seven player in the country by ESPN. He had gone seven-for-seven from three on his way to 40 points in Tampa Catholic’s state semifinal win in front of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams earlier in the week.
“I wanted to play Tampa Catholic,” McSweeney said, “because down the road in 10 years, when [Kevin Knox is] a star in the NBA, I want to be able to tell people we beat him for the state championship.”
Fast forward four hours, and McSweeney is embracing in a big hug with Allen. On that same court they had strolled onto at 8 A.M. this morning – basically the only ones in the arena – but this time in front of thousands.
Calvary Christian had defeated Tampa Catholic, 65-48, to capture the school’s first ever state championship. McSweeney became the first person ever in Broward County to win a state championship as a player and a coach.
“It was a great feeling,” McSweeney said. “These guys made the journey easier. I love this group off the floor even more.”
Knox had 21 points, but on just 1-of-12 shooting from three and was shut down by Calvary’s Soloman Uyaelunmo and Angel Lebron Jr., who switched off playing man-to-man on him throughout the way.
In that state title game, elite defense had clamped down on elite offense. Calvary won the 5A state championship by playing a conventional, lock up defensive game.
“It’s pretty simple actually, the way they play,” said a college scout who watched the Eagles multiple times in 2016-2017. “Calvary is going to slow you down and not let you score.”
The style of play may be simple, but the journey Calvary’s program took to become a state champion was anything but that.
Calvary Christian celebrates the school’s first ever state title. (Photo: Sun Sentinel)
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THE BEGINNING was not fun for anyone involved in Calvary Christian basketball. A program in disarray was viewed as a punching bag for opponents, no matter who it be.
When McSweeney, 29 at the time, agreed to take over the Calvary program in 2013, he immediately brought on his longtime friend, Allen, to his coaching staff as an assistant. Although the two knew what they were getting into – taking over a program that had little to no talent and hadn’t ever won a single playoff game – their first season was still frustrating to be apart of.
Calvary went 6-18, including losses to King’s Academy by 50, Lake Worth Christian by 67, and North Broward Prep by 40.
“It’s crazy to think how far we have come,” McSweeney said. “From being a team everyone beat up on my first season to now, we have come a long way.”
But as time went on, things improved. Adding junior forward Malik Morrow and a little more talent to the mix, Calvary improved to 14-11 in McSweeney’s second season, its first winning season in recent memory.
Then in 2014-2015, the Eagles added junior guard Jamal Ellick to the mix, while it’s other returning talent already returning and improving. And that was enough to take the next step.
Calvary went just 13-12 in the regular season, although facing a tough schedule, and made its first playoff appearance after finishing as a runner-up to a senior laden Chaminade-Madonna squad in its district.
“The biggest was preparation,” McSweeney said of the strides his program made in his first couple of years. “I think the way and process we’ve learned to scout and prepare before games really puts us in a position to win big games.”
Then, Calvary lost by just one on the road against Saint Andrew’s in the regional finals. Saint Andrew’s went on to get upset in the regional finals, but was the far fetched favorite to win states until losing to Westminster Christian.
There were clear strides being made in the Calvary program, from what it had been to being a playoff contender.
Then came 2016-17.
Calvary’s Victor Uyaelunmo faces up against Vernon Carey Jr. in the regional semifinals against University School. (Photo: Ryan Kuttler)
* * *
IT WAS only a few weeks after the 2016 season had concluded when McSweeney got an important phone call. It was still fresh off the season, but he knew his squad was a little short of talent for the following year, especially with five-star sophomores Vernon Carey Jr. and Balsa Koprivica helping University School shape up to be the heavy favorites in 5A.
McSweeney answered to some surprising, but good news. Westminster Academy 6-foot-5 junior guard Jerald Butler was transferring, and he had heavy interest in going to Calvary.
After touring the school, applying, and getting accepted, in early June it became official that Butler – a three-star and one of the top players in South Florida – was heading to Calvary Christian.
“I just felt it was the best opportunity for me,” said Butler, who is ironically signed to play at Butler. “I wanted to play for Coach Cilk and win a state title my senior year.”
The move was monumental, stirring buzz all across the tri-county area. Butler made Calvary an immediate contender, joining up with Etienne, junior guard Kahleel Gray, Angel Lebron Jr., and 6-foot-10 rising junior Elochuckwu Eze.
It would only be the start.
Butler’s move was followed by two more major ones. Gulliver Prep’s star brothers – Victor a teammate of Jerald’s on the AAU powerhouse, The Florida Vipers – 7-foot rising senior Victor Uyaelunmo and 6-foot-8 junior small forward Soloman Uyaelunmo made the decisions to follow suit and join Calvary.
“We made the decision to come up [to Calvary],” Victor said. “When we came here, we knew we could do big things. And as time went on and I knew the guys more, we felt like it was going to be a special season.”
Now, it was serious. Butler made Calvary a district contender; the Uyaelunmo’s made the Eagles a state title favorite.
“Once Victor and Soloman came we knew we’d be really good,” McSweeney said. “But it’s not just about having talent on paper. We knew we would have to put it all together.”
McSweeney, Allen, and other assistant Tony Ferrara – who also joined the staff with McSweeney when he took the job – displayed that common theme throughout the season that started once the transfers came in: Talent on paper doesn’t always translate on the court.
In fact, Calvary faced some steeper challenges heading into the year. Due to the lateness of the Uyaelunmo’s coming, Eze’s surgery, and AAU play, the Eagles couldn’t even play in a summer or fall league, and found that their first game action as a team would be in Fort Lauderdale High School’s tip-off classic against powerhouse teams like West Oaks, which would come just a week before the regular season started.
Not to mention that once the season started, an early schedule facing Northeast and Sagemont – two of South Florida’s top teams – and the number one ranked team in the nation, Montverde Academy.
“Having to coach this year’s team was not easy to put all together,” McSweeney said. “We had a whole new group of guys and no pre-season games.”
Still, anytime three transfers from other schools come flying in to take a team to the top, the scrutiny started to come in.
“They had an almost whole new starting five,” A rival coach who asked his name not be used told R.M.F. Magazine. “Obviously a community is going to start talking you when you bring in multiple senior transfers that were other coach’s top players.
“And I think once the scrutiny Calvary was getting for doing this started flying in, it put even more pressure on them. It was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it this way, you better get it done’.”
Despite the art of players transferring becoming rooted in High School teams’ success throughout the country, the scrutiny was flying in on Calvary. There was a target on Calvary’s back. Everybody knew it.
“I think any coach would love to be in my shoes in the fact that big time talent wants to come to your program,” McSweeney said. “Proving people wrong and rising to the top has been what I’ve done all my life.”
That pressure would be something he would need to get accustomed to with this team, and proving people wrong would be something he would need to do.
“Everyone kept saying, ‘University School or Saint Andrew’s will get them. Maybe even [Cardinal] Gibbons,’” The rival coach said. “The common theme among all Calvary’s haters was that someone would beat them.”
Jerald Butler holds in his excitement as Calvary Christian is moments away from a state title (Photo: Will Turner)
* * *
VICTOR UYAELUNMO wiped some sweat off his face and stared at the scoreboard. ‘This is really going to happen,’ he thought to himself, ‘I moved from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and came to Calvary for this.’
This, was what the result of his senior season looked like it would be. This was the situation Calvary was in. Down 11 at halftime to fourth-seeded Pine Crest in the district semifinals at home.
“I really thought we were going to lose that game,” said Uyaelunmo, who is headed to play at USC.
“I didn’t,” Jerald Butler added in with a smile. “I knew we would come back against them. The whole time I was thinking, ‘We’re not going to lose this game.’”
And they didn’t.
Calvary stormed back in the second half to hold off Pine Crest in double overtime to advance to the district finals for a rematch with University School. The Eagles had beaten the Sharks in the first showdown at U-School, but this matchup was for the district championship.
“We knew they were out for revenge after we beat them the first time,” said Etienne, who has been with Calvary all four years throughout its struggles to get to this point. “They wanted to get back at us on our home court.”
That they did. In front of a standing room only crowd, University got past Calvary, 54-52, to win the district championship.
Heading into the regional playoffs, not many believed in Calvary. The Eagles had barely even gotten to the district finals, were having trouble scoring, and would have to go on the road the entire way to get to Lakeland.
“After that loss to U-School, we took it personal,” Butler said. “A lot of people thought we would even lose to Saint Andrew’s [in the regional quarterfinals]. We just had to prove them wrong.”
And so the story goes, Calvary Christian – once a 5A state title favorite – found itself in the same spot it was in last year: at Saint Andrew’s in the first round. And similar to last season, not a lot people were picking Calvary Christian to win on the road against legendary coach John O’Connell, FSU-signee Anthony Polite, and the Scots, who hadn’t lost at home all year.
But unlike last year, the Eagles won this time. Calvary grinded out a win over Saint Andrew’s to advance to the regional semifinals, a rematch with University School on their home floor.
“We didn’t want to lose to University School again,” McSweeney said. “We were out for revenge. They came onto our home floor and beat us in the district title game, so we had to do the same to them in regional semifinals. We didn’t play well the last time we played them.”
This time they did.
Calvary defied the odds again, overcoming a seven-point deficit to rally past University School. And after cruising past Gulliver Prep in the regional finals, Marianna in the state semifinals, and beating Tampa Catholic, the Eagles had done what they had never done before.
“It felt amazing,” Etienne said on the state title. “All the struggles we went through. It’s amazing to me how we stuck to it.”
“It was great for me because I was able to go back [to Lakeland] and do it,” said Butler, who lost in the state finals with Westminster the previous season. “Honestly, I’m just happy to be apart of this.”
For Butler, Etienne, Victor Uyaelunmo, and Lebron Jr., they were able to go out on top. As seniors, graduate with state rings. For McSweeney and Allen, it’s what they did at Dillard. McSweeney won his state championship his senior year, and went out on top as he put High School behind him and headed to play basketball at Penn State.
Only this time, McSweeney isn’t going out on top. He isn’t putting High School behind him. Months removed from leading Calvary Christian to its first state title in school history, the grind is onwards for next season.
They will get back to work.
As McSweeney reminds himself and his players:
“To be a champion, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.”
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jesse Nadelman is an 18-year old reporter for R.M.F. Magazine who currently is a senior at North Broward Prep. Growing up in South Florida, Jesse has grown an intense passion for sports media. He covers all of South Florida’s top high school basketball teams and events for R.M.F. Jesse will attend the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in the fall.
You could follow Jesse on twitter: @Jessenadelman