LA VERNE -- In most cases, a tragedy, particularly a loss of life, tends to have a profound impact on the psyche of a high school sports program.
Sometimes the extenuating circumstances can cause strife so severe the players and coaches, often times, find it difficult to overcome.
The La Verne Lutheran boys’ basketball team has been a resilient bunch. It's a group that has recently dealt with three deaths to persons closely associated to the program and a close call with regard to another, a teammate no less.
Through it all, the players and coaches have persevered and are now on the verge of reaching a goal that many observers thought unattainable a couple of months ago.
A victory over La Canada (30-3) in Saturday’s Southern California Regional playoffs at USC’s Galen Center will secure the Trojans (25-5) an improbable Division III title and enable them to advance to the state finals on March 25 and 26 at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
“We have had some ups and downs so far, but our kids have stuck it out and fought through adversity,’’ La Verne Lutheran coach Eric Cooper Sr. said.
Perhaps Kevin Payne and Xavier Jones have been involved in the most traumatic experiences, given that each senior lost a close family member.
Payne’s father, Kevin Payne Sr., was killed in an automobile accident in early September. The grief left a lasting impression on the entire program.
“This program, we’re a family, when one person goes through a hard time, we all go through a hard time, I don’t know what I would have done without my teammates lifting me up,’’ Payne said. “My dad was a big part of La Verne Lutheran basketball, and in some ways, he’s still with us. That’s one of the reasons we’re playing well right now. We peaked at the right time.’’
Days later, Jones’ grandmother, Ramona Williams, died of heart failure. Her presence in the stands was sorely missed considering she was a fixture at home games.
Kenneth Jefferson, a well-respected man on the La Verne Lutheran campus and former girls’ basketball coach, lost his battle with cancer in mid-September as well.
Three prominent figures, each gone within about a week’s time.
“It was a tough time, no doubt about it, we had grief counseling specialists working with the kids around the clock,’’ Cooper Sr. said. “The losses we had were terrible, there’s no way to recover from something like that. Looking back, things couldn’t have gotten much worse.’’
But they did.
The day before Thanksgiving, Jones suffered a heart attack after one of the team's practices. For some reason, Cooper Sr. and assistant coach John Osorno had lingered around the gym a bit longer than normal and that ultimately proved to be an important life-saving decision.
Both Cooper Sr. and Osorno were prepared to administer CPR to Jones and successfully revived the youngster. A carefully monitored recovery process followed. Nowadays, the center is back in the middle of the starting lineup and contributing on a regular basis again.
“I don’t remember very much about going into cardiac arrest, things happened so fast,’’ said Jones, who plays with the aid of a defibulator. “I’m getting closer to being 100 percent and that has been important to me because I wanted to get back out on the court with my team.
“We have something special here at La Verne Lutheran, all of us have overcome a lot in the past year. We feel like we can do anything and want to prove it to everyone.’’
The fact that the Trojans are in the position they are at this stage is somewhat surprising given the obvious trials and tribulations off the court along the way.
As for things on the court, there were plenty of setbacks too.
A couple of unfavorable early season results raised questions about whether La Verne Lutheran was for real, or merely a product of the never-ending hype machine.
This was, after all, a team with five players who figure to be playing at the Division I level. Bruce English is heading to Loyola Marymount and fellow upperclassmen C.J. Cooper and Alec Terry are bound for to Texas El Paso and Xavier, respectively.
Payne, along with Jones, could be destined for a similar path.
When it comes to the future at La Verne Lutheran, things appear bright. Junior Grant Jerrett committed to Arizona and sophomore Eric Cooper Jr. pledged to USC.
Nevertheless, skepticism prevailed after the Trojans’ disappointing five-point loss to Los Angeles Price in the Southern Section Division 3A playoff semifinals.
“We weren’t prepared for all of the tragedies, we got off track, it was a really big shock to the system of everyone around here,’’ said C.J. Cooper, son of Cooper Sr.
“If anything good came out of everything that happened, we learned about how important life is. We learned about how important each day is. We learned about how to support each other. Now, we play with more of a purpose. We play for the people watching over us.’’
The Trojans have made the most of their second chance in the Southern California Regional playoffs after receiving an at-large berth to the postseason tournament.
A two-point victory over San Diego University got things started right. A 20-point win over Orange Lutheran was impressive, to be sure. And the Trojans nearly duplicated the feat with a 16-point victory over North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake a mere two days later.
Top-seeded La Canada is the lone obstacle standing in the way of a shot at a state title.
“This team, this group, we share a special bond, it’s a tight one, we have all gone through some difficult times together,’’ English said. “We are stronger because of everything that happened. We rallied around each other and formed a brotherhood that can’t be broken.
“We have come too far. We’re playing for a high power now, we have all our guardian angels watching over us, and I think I can speak for the whole team when I say that too. The only way to do them justice, the only way to do justice to the people that we lost, is to go out there and play our hearts out. We’re going to leave it all out on the court and play La Verne Lutheran basketball.’’
Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.