Flying on the Wings of an Angel - The 2005-2006 C.G. Finney Falcons New York State Championship run from my perspective
By Joe DiBella
Five Years ago this July I was faced with untimely death for the first time since I was four years old and lost my Grandma at a young age. I walked into my house on a late July day in 2005 and my mother told me that someone I coached named “Alex " had died in a biking accident overseas. She didn't know him and didn't know if he meant anything to me, just that he was a kid I coached. However this was no ordinary kid. He was special to me and to countless others.
I had just talked to him days before online. He told me specifically that he would be coming back the following March to watch his friends win the sectional basketball title. Little did I know that would be the last time that I spoke to this vibrant 16 year old. Little did I know that his prophecy that we would win sectionals and he would return to watch it would be fulfilled only in half. Little did I know the other half of his prophecy would be fulfilled by a family looking for healing and renewed faith, thru a team they had never even met. Little did I know the next year of my life as well as the kids, coaches, and parents involved in Charles Finney basketball, would be a storybook fairy tale. Beginning in tragedy and culminating with the ultimate in sports utopia.
I head coached Junior Varsity basketball for the C.G. Finney High School, and assisted on Varsity for the 2005-2006 seasons. The story though begins with the season before. Alex Soesters was a senior and a foreign exchange student from Germany. He was a vibrant, humurous, intelligent kid, whom everyone took to in some way. I remember one of my first experiences with him was sitting at the end of the bench arguing with him about who should pour the water for the team. My case was that he was the last player in so he should get the water. His case was that I was only on the bench to get water for the players. This playful debate was running banter between us all season, with me winning out most of the time.But not due to lack of argument and insight on his part.
We fell short in the Class D semi-finals to Elba and Alex's basketball career came to an end. Coaches and players agreed he was the hardest working player on the court allot of the time. The talent just wasn't there because he had never picked up a basketball before. However the loudest the gym got that season was with "We want Alex” chants from the crowd, and the cheers that were let out when he finally scored a basket.
I also got to also then coach him in baseball after the basketball season. I will never forget two things about that season with Alex. One was at East Rochester. I was coaching third base and Alex was up. He got hit on the hand with a fastball and did the most painstaking, awkward and silly "pain dance" down to first base. It was so effeminate that the third basemen asked me what his deal was.He told us He had never been hit with a baseball before. He promised he never would be hit with one again after learning of its wrath. My other memory was driving to a baseball game in Lyndonville with him and a few others. We passed the adult video and book store entitled "Lusty Life" and Alex asked me, "What is Lusty Life?" I told him it was a book store but didn't tell him its origin. He said he was interested in possibly applying for a part time job at "Lusty Life." He was dead serious. We were all laughing and finally told him what really was going on inside of the store. He thought it was hilarious, and jokingly said that he still wanted to apply.
Upon hearing about his death I didn't know what to do with myself. How could this kid full of life and so youthful be gone at the drop of a dime? Our Varsity coach was asked to speak at the funeral in Germany. While he was gone I was asked to coach the summer league game that was played a few days after Alex's passing. All of those involved with this program knew that the group of kids that were on Varsity now was set apart. They were a special bunch, who had been waiting for this upcoming year for years. They had been playing together non-stop for years and had grown into a sort of family, a band of brothers in the basketball realm. When they all came into the pre-game huddle that night for the first time as a group after Alex's death, none of them knew what to say to each other.
I remember telling them, amidst their unspoken sorrow that cut like a knife thru the huddle, "You made the last year of that kid's life the best of his life. You guys did it, you should be proud, he loved all of you. Now go out there and play for him for the next year." They all put their hands in and I don't know who came up with what happened next. It might have even been a whimsical group epiphany. In a 100 degree gym in late July in front of about 15 fans, where the usual chant had been '1-2-3 ,win’, or '1-2-3 defense', out of their mouths came '1-2-3,Alex.' For the next 8 months, that chant which began in utter sorrow and disbelief, in front of barely a soul but themselves, became the chant of every huddle break and the motto of their season. A season that would end 400 miles away ,in front of thousands, with a trophy in their hands that defined destiny in a way that would make Walt Disney envious.
To understand and appreciate what follows you have to know what preceded this dream season. I had followed Finney basketball as either a fan,coach,or player, for over a decade. Times were not always good. Not by a long shot. The program had struggled over the years mired in obscurity and losing. They had never gotten past the Class Semi-finals. Amid coaching changes and player discontent, the current varsity coach arrived on the scene in 1997, with a motivational philosophy that hinged on teamwork and dedication. The next eight years were spent either running into a buzz saw, coming up short in talent versus talent, or not having the cohesiveness among players that you need to gel and succeed.
As coach looked ahead to this particular group, he knew that his vision for success was finally going to have a chance to come to fruition. This team didn’t care about anything but each other and winning. They considered everything else minutia that they couldn’t and wouldn't allow to get in the way of putting up that first school banner on the wall.As summer league turned into the regular season, you could see this group of boys were playing for something more then themselves. They loved each other, they loved their coaches, they loved winning, and they loved their fallen teammate.
In December, a plaque was unveiled in honor of Alex.His number 20 was retired across the board in Finney sports. As the playoffs rolled around, Finney had secured their first number one basketball seed in the 14 years of the school's existence. Sometime before the playoffs began I wrote Alex's parents an email telling them of the last conversation I had with Alex. I told them how he was planning on coming back to watch this team win sectionals.
A few days after I wrote this, I got an email from his parents saying they wanted to take his place and come to watch the semi-final and if needed final of the tournament. Coach read a letter from his parents that they sent to be read to the team before the first playoff game. It stated how proud they were of the team. Also How much the team had meant to Alex and in turn, now meant to them. It also said in so many words,"If you win tonight, we will be flying in from Germany next week to watch you guys win sectionals." The burden could have been enough to weigh an ordinary team down. However they were too inspired to let it bear any burden. They were too determined to fulfill their dream. They were too hellbent on helping a family in mourning heal.
They went out and clobbered their quarterfinal opponent and advanced on to the Semi-finals.When the Soesters arrived, they came into a practice to meet the players. They were a friendly, mild-mannered family of three, desperate to breathe in the surroundings of their son's last year of life. Seldom in life are you allowed the reward of healing while simultaneously living out a dream. Everyone involved here was getting that chance. The media got a hold of the story and were doing interviews and headline reports on the team and family. This obscure basketball program had now been cast into the limelight. However nothing had been accomplished yet on the court. We were still two wins away from the championship.
In the semi-finals, Finney won handily, to advance to their first championship game. Three days later, Finney cruised to victory in the title game at the War Memorial. The Soester's were invited down onto the court for the postgame celebration. With tears in their eyes and news camera's rolling, they were handed the trophy. Alex had vowed to be there for this event and he was. Just in a much different way then anticipated. I remember hugging his mother thinking the goal was accomplished. She didn't think so however. She told me that this team was now going to win a state championship.
It had never occurred to me until that moment that that could happen.The Soester's went back to Germany and Finney began the process of trying to qualify for the Glen's fall’s state semi-final and final. Advance they did. They won 3 games and found themselves in the State championship game. Their opponent would be a perennial powerhouse and the defending state champions. After the state semifinal victory the representative from Section Five was overheard talking about the outlook for Finney in the next day's title game versus the juggernaut state champions. He said something to the tune of, ' Good for them, they finished second in the state. There is no shame in that.' I had seen this type of anecdotal motivation work in the movies. Now it was being thrust into play in our lives. Our own rep counted us out. Little did he know. Oh ye of little faith.
Before the State Championship game I remember thinking what I would say to them if Coach asked me if I had any words. I was sure he wouldn’t because it wasn't often he asked me to give an opinion to the team before the game. Just in case though I figured out exactly what I wanted to tell them.
In the locker room before the game he did end up asking me if I wanted to say anything. He had just given a heartfelt speech about how much they meant to him and was very emotional, as was everyone in the room. He asked me if I had anything and out it came. I said, "This team can't beat you 6 on 5, no one can beat you 6 on 5.” I don't even know how I got it out without breaking down, or if anyone even heard me in that moment. I just felt like they needed to know that it was divinity that brought them there that night and that Alex was going to be on the court with them.
An hour and a half later, Finney won the state championship in overtime in one of the best basketball games I have ever witnessed on any level. As we all walked thru the handshake line after the game, with tears in our eyes, I couldn't help but think of that first summer league game after Alex died. This group of kids was special in so many ways, and had rode the coat tails of dedication to a fallen teammate, to an accomplishment only themselves believed could be reached. A parent had made a poster and sent it down to the floor. On it was the playoff brackets with Finney listed as State champs with the phrase ' 1-2-3, Alex’ below. It was the first time I had seen it on paper. It looked infinitely better then '1-2-3, Defense'.
I mentioned above that the story of the 2005-2006 Finney boys basketball team would end in the ultimate utopia. In my mind, there is no higher level of pure sports bravado then High school sports. It’s presumably and predominantly the last of the untampered and incorrupt competitive sports levels in America. Pro athletes are overpaid and greed based. College athletics are tampered with and impure. High school sports are passion driven. What this group of kids accomplished was in my opinion the ultimate in pure feats left in American athletics. They let fate play out in their lives, and contributed with their own individual roles leading to team euphoria; spear headed by something bigger then them.
It would be hard to dispute God's role and hand in this year long adventure. I'll always remember hearing of how Alex's mom had followed the state championship game on the internet from Germany. It was the middle of the night there when it ended and she had woken up Alex's father to tell him of the win. She simply told him, "We did it!” When I think about that statement I realize what "We" encompassed. "We" was simply a group of individuals that allowed God to manifest a situation as difficult as death into a fateful journey to healing, bonding, jubilation, and the fulfillment of a dream. Five on five they were mere mortals. However with Alex's memory carrying them and God's indelible handprint guiding the way, they played that season Six on Five. They flew on the wings of an angel, led by a God who never finishes second. We did it.