HERSHEY, Pa. -- Mark "Knobby" Walsh was back at his alma mater, but the new boys basketball coach knew very little about the Seton-LaSalle High School team when he gathered the players together for an "open gym" workout in the spring three years ago.
"I hadn't seen Seton-LaSalle play in five or six years, so I didn't know these players," Walsh said. "But I remember seeing Dale Clancy in that first open gym and noticed how athletic and quick he was, and how good he was handling the ball. I saw Levi Masua's length and knew he had ability.
"Then Malik White came into our school a few months later and when I saw him for the first time in a gym and saw his body, I said that when these guys were seniors, we would have a pretty good team."
Boy, was Walsh wrong.
Pretty good? Try special. Try calling this one of the best teams in the history of Seton-LaSalle, at least in terms of accomplishments.
The season ended with a heartbreaking 61-59 loss to Constitution High of Philadelphia in the PIAA Class AA championship game last Saturday at the Giant Center in Hershey. The Rebels had a chance to win, but Levi Masua's 3-point shot was just a tad long, bouncing off the back of the rim as time expired.
There were some tears after the loss. But what this team did this season brought a lot of joy to the South Hills area Catholic school. Consider:
* Seton-LaSalle won a WPIAL title for only the second time in school history.
* The Rebels made it to a PIAA title game for only the second time in school history.
* The team finished with a 29-2 record. That is the most wins for the school since it joined the WPIAL in the mid 1970s.
"You win the WPIAL, finish as runner-up in the state. We can't be mad that we lost this game," said Clancy, a senior point guard.
The seeds of this special team were planted when Clancy and Masua decided to attend Seton-LaSalle in the fall of 2010. Clancy came from St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District and Masua from St. Anne in Castle Shannon.
Then Malik White came from Penn Hills in 2011 and enrolled at Seton-LaSalle as a sophomore. It was kind of the creation of a Big Three. Point guard Clancy, forward White and forward Masua were all in the same class.
And the man who had to take those three and mold them with other role players was Walsh, who was hired in the spring of 2011. He took over a program that had gone 6-14 and 4-18 in the two previous seasons.
But Seton-LaSalle showed significant signs of progress when the Big Three were sophomores as the Rebels finished 15-9 and qualified for the WPIAL playoffs in Walsh's first year. They improved to 21-3 last season, won a section title and made it to the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Then came the magical run of this season. Clancy led the team in scoring while White and Masua also were big factors. Junior guard Christian Del Greco and junior forward Ryan Norkus were the other starters and played their roles well.
In the PIAA title game, Masua scored 19, Clancy 16 and Norkus 12. They helped Seton-LaSalle almost pull off a victory against a Philadelphia Public League team that many thought might roll over the Rebels.
"People were saying, 'Oh this team is from Philly and they are going to kill you guys,'" Masua said. "It was a war, but my guys were ready. I think we did prove ourselves. I think we proved we can play with the best of them."
Walsh said, "There were so many plays that could go either way at the end of a game like that. It was such a good team. It was two good teams going at it. I don't think if you were a fan or in the media, you could ask for a better game."
Seton-LaSalle would just like a better ending.
Neither Clancy, Masua or White knows where they will be attending college. But their names should live in Seton-LaSalle lore for what they accomplished. Maybe they will be remembered along with some of the other big names on memorable teams at Seton-LaSalle or South Hills Catholic (the school's fore-runner before it merged with all-girls Elizabeth Seton in 1979 and became coed).
The three teams that won Catholic League state titles had players such as Jim Smith (1961); Hank South, Steve Litz and Tom Donahoe (1965); Steve Albert, Bob O'Connor, Bob DelGreco and Greg McBride (1972).
The 1974 team that lost in the WPIAL final to Farrell at the Civic Arena had a star player in Jim Marshall. The 1988 team that won a state title had players such as Kevin Kerwin, Bill Lonero, Julius Caye and Dave Binkowski. The 1989 team that won a WPIAL title had Kevin Salvadori, who went on to play at the University of North Carolina and in the NBA. And the 2000 Seton-LaSalle team that lost to Aliquippa in the WPIAL final had a future NFL quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski.
"Levi's shot looked real good," Clancy said after the PIAA loss. "We can't be mad, though, because of the success we had all year. A lot of teams would've liked to be in this position."
Walsh stood outside the team's locker room after the loss and spoke with great passion and emotion about this team.
"This group of seniors, I told them that they won the most games at Seton-LaSalle -- in the history," Walsh said. "They took us on the journey this year that we couldn't have imagined."
Not even three years ago.
Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh