By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST
AMERICAN CANYON — Tom Bonfigli was feeling it all right. His eyes were red, tears will do that to you. His basketball team had just won the Division 4 NorCals. Cardinal Newman had earned the right to play for the state championship next week. The Cardinals had won their record 32nd game of the year, the most of any large-school basketball team in the Redwood Empire. It was a wealth of riches he was experiencing and then all of a sudden a name popped up.
“The tears were tears of satisfaction but they were also tears of joy,” said the Cardinal Newman coach. “We were supposed to get killed. We were from the North Bay. But we were dominant. That first quarter, we gave a clinic. That was the best basketball game Newman has played since I came back to coaching at Newman six years ago … and how about that Corey Hammel!”
Right out of nowhere that Hammell exclamation came, as if Bonfigli was seized by a lightning bolt of energy, or maybe it was just gratitude. Yes, this may have been the best basketball game Newman has played in the last six years but it was not a perfect basketball game. There are no perfect basketball games. There are, however, perfect responses. With 3:22 left in the game, The Perfect Response came. It came from Hammell and no one, absolutely no one could have predicted it, even Hammell.
“I just had a gut feeling,” Hammell said.
In Cardinal Newman basketball history what Hammell did should be remembered for generations as The Perfect Response. When they talk of the 2012-13 Newman team, they will start with The Perfect Response.
With 3:22 left in the game Newman was leading, 57-51, but Riordan had run off six of the last eight points. Riordan might have looked like roadkill at the end of that 19-5 Newman first quarter but Riordan didn’t reach the NorCal finals by playing and beating a bunch of cupcakes. The Crusaders were quick and that speed produced short bursts, bursts that quickened the Newman pulse. Those Riordan points came easy and in a hurry. Riordan was on another of those short, explosive bursts and with just more than three minutes left, everyone knew this was going to have to be Riordan’s last run. The clock was ticking and the charge was coming.
“It wasn’t like we were going to give any points,” said Newman guard Tim McCullough. “They were going to have to earn it.”
And Riordan was and by its tenacity the Crusaders were telling Newman it was going to have to earn this one.
McCullough got the ball on a fast break. McCullough was going to face a contested layup but he had a step on the defender and he was driving under control.
“I just had a feeling he was going to miss it,” Hammell said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I dunno,” Hammell said. “I just did.”
History is made, sometimes, without a complicated backstory. Hammell just had a feeling. In such simplicity a genius moment resides.
“I was going to crash the boards,” he said.
And then Hammell said he would see what happened. It wasn’t like Hammell was omnipotent. It wasn’t like he was channeling Kobe Bryant or something. He didn’t know what was to follow. McCullough certainly didn’t.
“I put up the shot, saw it miss and then I was past the basket when I heard the rim clang,” McCullough said.
The ball came off the glass and the rim in perfect — there’s that word “perfect” again — position. Right to Hammell. As if it came like room service. Hammell grabbed the ball like he was hungry and he just saw a free pizza. He took it and in a nano-second he grabbed that miss and dunked the basketball. And it wasn’t one of those relatively silent dunks, where there is a swish and everyone goes “OOOOOHHHH.” No, Hammell’s dunk made noise. Rims make noise when yanked upon. Hammell wasn’t leaving any doubt.
And that was only fitting because …
“I have never dunked before in a game,” said the senior.
Never, as is never in a high school game. In practice? “Once or twice,” Hammell said.
The first dunk in his high school career looked good, sounded good and was rewarded in kind. Newman’s players, Newman’s students, Newman’s coaches, jumped to their feet as if all of them were sitting on an electrified Whoopee cushion.
“I could hear our crowd scream,” Hammell said, “and I could hear their crowd go ‘Ooooooooh.’”
Ooooooooh, like some Riordan fellow thought Hammell had just turned out their lights.
It was a transcendent moment, a moment that will never lose its zest in the retelling, even in the years distant. It was that spectacular because of what it created.
“That dunk was the dagger,” said Jerry Bonfigli, Newman’s athletic director and his brother’s assistant coach. “There are so many pushes (rallies) a team can make in a game. That one? That’s a head-bower. That’s when a team lowers its head.”
That’s when a team like Riordan walked away from the game without moaning it was only a play or two away from winning.
Riordan can’t trick itself by saying the referees blew it or the Newman players were dirty or that it had an off-night. Riordan never had a Hammell Dunk. Riordan never had a 35-foot Kenny Love drill shot at the first quarter buzzer. Riordan never had anyone like Newman’s Kyle King score eight points in the fourth quarter, coming out nowhere — it must have seemed to Riordan — as the Crusaders were trying to stop Hammell or Love. Riordan never had even one player much less four players as Newman did shooting at least 50 percent (King, Hammell, Love, McCullough) for the game.
Newman is going to play for the state championship against Pacific Hills because the Cardinals threw a team out there Saturday afternoon. It was a team that called upon itself to provide moments of resistance to Riordan, to toss role players out there, again and again, to the point one can understand why Riordan couldn’t tell one Newman player from another coming through what had to appear like a revolving door.
Except for this one guy, Corey Hammell. Riordan won’t be forgetting Hammell.
And that’s one thing Riordan will have in common with the team that beat them. Newman won’t forget Hammell either.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.