The St. Elizabeth Tigers raised their fists in triumph Sun. evening when they closed out their fifth and final win of the weekend to sweep the COA Tournament in Tomales and finish off their season undefeated.
It wasn’t a small season, either. The Tigers fought through 16 games and returned with 16 wins—no small feat for any team, much less a horde of raucous third-graders. Yet win they did. Through trials and tribulations, the Tigers rose above every opponent pit against them, and when the dust finally cleared and the season ended, they stood alone, victorious amidst a field of fallen challengers.
So, what made the difference? Well, according to the Tigers’ coach, Joe Bertolina, the wins were all thanks to the team’s unique philosophy.
“These are competitors but they’re also third graders. You’ve got to let them have some fun—to let them love the game itself,” Bertolina said. “My thought was to just not put any stress on them. (...) I’ve found coaches that put a lot of pressure on their team make it tough to be successful.”
But the road to victory is long and winding and for the Tigers their path was seeded with more than their fair share of brambles. At the start of the season some Tigers didn’t have basketball experience. For many, this was their first season or indeed their first team sport and so the whole group needed to pull together in the short span time from the start of practices in Oct. to their first game in Nov.
Pull together they did. The Tigers prioritized a defensive strategy that focused on the fundamentals to limit their opponents’ shooting opportunities. The plan was this: keep the other team within six to seven points and then all they needed to score was eight. Simple enough, and it worked, mostly, until tragedy struck.
Around mid-season one of the Tigers’ star players, Koa Little, contracted pneumonia. It kept him on the bench for a good portion of the years’ games and the Tigers felt the absence. Rather than dwell on Koa’s misfortune, however, they pulled together to wish their teammate well.
“When the team found out they wanted to do something really nice for [Koa]. They made him a really cool card. It was like a basketball court with all the little players’ heads on it,” Bertolina said. “Just to see [Koa’s] face light up when we gave him the card...he said it was the best one he’d ever gotten in his life.”
It was a touching gesture and the perfect encapsulation of everything youth sports is supposed to embody, according to Koa’s mother, Kristi Lua.
“It’s about building friendships and teaching them to follow through,” Lua said. “I like to see them having fun. I was never a very competitive person, so I just wanted to see them making friends.”
Everything told, the Tigers rose above 22 other teams at the COA Tournament.
Their first match was early Sat. morning against the St. Sebastian Wolves, which they beat 27-11. Next was the St. Eugene Jaguars, 27-14, and then the St. Francis Tigers, 27-18. On Sunday the Tigers played in the semi-finals against the St. Eugene Lions. It was a close one, but the Tigers pulled ahead in the final few seconds and closed out the game 31-30.
The Lions weren’t done. They battled through the losers’ bracket and returned in the finals, but round two went the same as the first. The Tigers closed out the finals with a comfortable 30-21.