St. Michaels High School is not a basketball school.

The Saints baseball team is dominant, with five state championships, including four in the last 12 years. They made the state final for three straight years from 2016-18. Their soccer team won nine Bayside Conference championships over 10 years (1974-83) and two state titles in the 1970s. They’ve also had some individual success in wrestling and track & field.

But boys’ basketball is another story.

Forget championships, the Saints would be thrilled to just win a game in boys’ basketball. They haven’t done so in nine seasons.

In some ways, at first glance, it’s obvious why that’s the case. The Saints’ roster is mostly undersized and less athletic than their opponents.

But in other ways, St. Michaels looks like any regular basketball team. During practice, it looks like any typical group of kids playing ball. They joke around with each other, laugh and have fun. It’s not obvious, based on their behavior, that they’ve never won a game in their high school careers.

But don’t get it twisted, they talk about the streak every single practice. They know they can’t hide from it, and they strive to end it. The players fantasize about the moment when St. Michaels finally wins a game.

“Every time I go to a game, I’m like ‘What if we win? What if?’ And we always talk about it, like what we would do,” senior Eddie Robinson said. “We always said we would make it to ESPN, just like that, to be funny.”

The Saints have simply learned to not let the losing streak define them, enjoy each others’ company, and be comfortable knowing they tried their hardest every day.

Battling History

The losing streak is not a fall from grace for a once dominant program. There’s just never been a successful basketball tradition at St. Michaels.

Athletic director Brian Femi searched through school yearbooks for basketball records — there aren’t really any other archives of records for older teams that aren’t Bayside championships. He couldn’t find a single winning record since 1975, which was the furthest back he looked.

Famed alum and National Baseball Hall of Famer Harold Baines played basketball when he was in high school from 1974-77, but told Femi those Saints teams never reached .500 either.

The best record Femi could find was one season — he couldn’t recall the year — when the Saints finished the regular season 10-10, before losing their first playoff game to clinch a losing record.

So the program is up against a long, difficult history.

“I guess it’s always been like that,” Femi said. “They’ve never had a winning record to our knowledge. Now, maybe they did back in 1950. We went back to like 1975 and couldn’t find any. So it seems to have always been that way.”

There are several reasons the program has been like this. For many years, there was no feeder system for St. Michaels. While other schools, such as Talbot County rival Easton, worked closely with AAU and middle school programs to scout players before they reached high school, the Saints had no such connections for basketball.

So because students in Talbot County can pick where they go to high school, some of the talented basketball players in St. Michaels’ district end up at Easton. They’ve already formed bonds with kids in the Easton district through those youth programs, and those programs land the players on Easton coaches’ radar.

And because of the losing pattern, St. Michaels has struggled to convince its best athletes to play basketball. Many don’t bother trying out knowing the history they’re up against and the likelihood of losing every game. In many cases, the underclassmen grow tired of losing and leave after a couple years, which has created a difficult cycle to break.

Four coaches have led the Saints during the losing streak, including current head coach Mike Murphy, who just completed his second season.

Cycling through coaches removes consistency that can attract players to try out and stay with the program, but it’s a very difficult situation for a coach to enter.

“I think the winter season’s always tough because it’s a long season,” Femi said. “Now you’re putting the longest season on kids that are being unsuccessful. And not only have they been unsuccessful, some of the teams have beat them by 90 points, where it gets to be humiliating. So I think that also plays into it a little bit.”

There are peers who can relate to the situation Murphy is in. The year before Frank Kratovil took over as Kent Island’s head basketball coach, the Buccaneers went 2-14. While not the exact same circumstances as a prolonged losing streak, Kent Island was consistently at the bottom of the standings with St. Michaels for several seasons. Kratovil has built a program from the ground. The Buccaneers finished second in North Bayside this season after leading for much of the season.

He said the important thing to remember is it only takes one or two good players to start winning basketball games.

“(The first step is) just to try to maintain players’ interest in playing at the school, keeping them there,” Kratovil said. “Not losing them to, let’s say, Easton. Keeping one or two players there and you get a couple wins under your belts, and then the players start to invest in the school and it becomes something they want to be a part of.”

Femi has proposed ideas to the Bayside Conference in the past that would help the basketball team. He’s suggested a limited conference schedule that would prevent St. Michaels from playing traditional powers, such as Wicomico. That would open up games and allow the program to schedule opponents that would give the Saints a better chance at winning.

He’s also proposed the Saints field only a junior varsity team instead of a varsity to make their competition more reasonable. Both ideas were voted down unanimously, but the lack of a JV team is a whole separate problem for St. Michaels.

Something Missing

A JV coach would’ve been impractical in years where the Saints struggled to draw enough players to keep a varsity active for a season. But it certainly would’ve helped in 2019-20.

They had as many as 18 players on the team — three left throughout the season for various reasons, so they finished with 15.

With that many players, it’s impossible for Murphy to find minutes for all of them. In practices, it’s difficult for him to give each player the individual attention and coaching he’d like to.

The Saints don’t even have a full-time assistant coach. Girls’ head coach Kevin Brack helps: he’d come for half of a practice sometimes, and he’d help during some games. But his priority was his girls’ team.

Brack’s presence at practice made a noticeable difference. When Murphy was by himself, the team could only run one drill at a time. And with so many kids on the team, players would have to sit out drills or wait in longer lines to participate. But when Brack was there, the team was able to split into groups and run multiple drills. More kids were engaged when Brack was at practice.

It’s difficult for Murphy to run practices by himself. A JV coach would make a significant difference.

“It would be huge for the program because we would get more kids that would want to come down here that would want to play basketball, which we have,” Murphy said. “But just to have game time and have experience and to gain confidence. There’s no substitute for that.”

That issue is evident to others in the Bayside Conference as well. The lack of available playing time can be mentally trying for kids as is, but it’s exacerbated by the team’s losing streak. Feelings of ‘Would it really be any worse if I was out there instead of those guys?’ are only natural.

And without a JV team, it’s hard to emphasize development.

“When you don’t have a JV program, it’s hard to build from that,” said Marty Bailey Jr., Cambridge-South Dorchester’s boys’ head basketball coach. “You’ve got inexperienced ninth graders playing against seniors. It’s tough. That doesn’t start at ninth grade. It’s got to start way before that, developing these kids. And that takes a lot of time, a lot of effort. (It takes) a team effort for that: the coach, the admin supporting them all the way through.”

Femi knew if the Saints had a JV team, it would only be beneficial to the program if they kept all underclassmen on JV, even if they were better than kids playing on varsity. He drew comparisons to a similar situation with the JV team when he was coaching football at Cambridge-SD under Doug Fleetwood.

“There were a couple years I saw (Fleetwood) do that. The varsity was average, and (he) knew it wasn’t going to be much better,” Femi said. “He kept the ninth and 10th grade teams together so they could — and, as a matter of fact, they’d go undefeated. He wanted them to stay (together). He basically said ‘I want them to learn how to win.’ And then when those kids came up the next few years, he reaped the benefits from it.”

Pushing Hard Through Adversity

The Saints typically end practice running suicides.

They’ll run three, four, five, or even more, while in between, a player shoots two free throws while attempting to catch their breath, replicating a similar in-game situation.

The team was wrapping up a Wednesday practice in January with that routine. The Saints haven’t won a game in over eight years, and the drought seemed likely to continue in that Thursday’s game against then-first-place Kent Island.

The players threw their hands into the center of the huddle, and prepared to yell ‘Saints!’, pack their belongings and go home.

But Eddie Robinson had other ideas.

The senior exclaimed ‘We want to run one more.’

Murphy obliged, instructed the players to re-form the line across the baseline, and blew his whistle to send them off. He walked to the side sporting a wide smile.

That type of hard work is common among basketball teams that strive to be successful. But it’s a testament to the drive and passion of the Saints, who work hard despite knowing what’s coming on game day.

“The kids that are leaders and the kids that get it are realizing there’s excitement here and something going on and they’re getting better, and they want to get better,” Murphy said. “So it was a genuine sense of ‘We want to do this.’”

Robinson took on the leadership role. He brought a relentlessly positive attitude, always praising and encouraging teammates.

Leadership takes a different look and feel in a situation like this, however. That optimism is challenging for a high schooler to retain after so many losses.

“It takes a lot of guts to do that,” senior Tristan Reeside said of Robinson’s leadership. “Especially to come up and be a leader on a team like this, knowing that you’re going to lose every single game. It’s hard to push your team.”

One thing that keeps the players coming back every day is friendship. They’re all friends with each other — something previous Saints teams couldn’t say in recent years — so they’re able to have fun and joke during practice while putting in work.

“We’re a dysfunctional group, but we are all friends at the end of the day,” Reeside said. “We work very hard each day, no matter the outcome. I feel like we’ve worked as hard as we could.”

But coming back and working hard every day is not easy when the Saints lose every game. That losing can take a toll on a kid’s mentality. It takes a lot of dedication to play on a team like this.

“It’s not easy to come out and lose every single game,” Reeside said. “I feel like it takes a lot of dedication to do that. And with this group of kids, I feel like they have that dedication. Everyone comes out each day.”

“We have guts to go out there, and if we lose, we still play the hardest,” Robinson said. “Even some other teams have said that. They came up to me and said ‘You have guts to be out here playing. You play hard.’ There’s some people that just think it’s amazing that we keep going out there.”

Robinson and the Saints hear comments like that from opponents somewhat frequently. Whether the praise is born of sportsmanship or pity, it’s always well-received. Those opponents recognize effort, and realize how tough St. Michaels’ situation is for the players.

“It would be tough on me, knowing that we were going to lose every game, and just playing hard,” Bailey said. “It just says a lot that they try. They are trying. Before, they would be quitting every year. And they keep the team full, sometimes over 15 players. So that says a lot.”

A Background in the Game

Murphy was introduced to basketball at a young age. His father was a college coach and referee, and his grandfather was a referee. Those connections exposed him to independence and higher levels of the game when he was younger.

He recalled attending coaching camps run by his father’s friends in the coaching industry. He remembered boarding a flight by himself to get to a camp when he was 10, and the flight attendant put a sticker on his shirt that said ‘I’m flying solo.’ Mike and his dad’s friend, who was the same age, would run the concession stand at camp.

“I had some really, really good times as a kid going to camp,” Murphy said. “I had a lot of great experiences with basketball and I was blessed with that because it’s always been in my family. It’s really cool.”

Mike played collegiately at Western Maryland (now McDaniel), and immediately went into coaching high school basketball when he was done playing. His father, Joseph, is a big influence on him as a coach.

Joseph was an educator for 30 years, and it was all about the kids for him. Mike adopted that mentality. He knows if he shows the kids he genuinely cares about them, they’ll respond when he tries to coach them up.

Maintaining that type of perspective can be tough, at times, for a coach whose team hasn’t won since he took over. Joseph came to a Saints game in January, and the extra pair of eyes spotted things Mike doesn’t always catch.

“I was talking about one of the kids on the team,” Mike said, “and (Joseph) looked at me and said ‘You could see in the kid’s eyes that the kid was listening, that the kid wanted to learn, that the kid wanted to be there.’ And I thought that was cool because I don’t always see it.”

That’s the impact Murphy has had on his players. They may not be winning games, but he makes certain he connects with them, brings a positive attitude every day, and makes them want to be there and play hard.

His players know that outlook is important in a situation like this.

“You don’t want a coach that has no hope,” Reeside said. “Coach Mike is always hopeful and optimistic about each and every single game. He always pushes us to work harder.”

That positive attitude doesn’t always come easy for Murphy. The situation has weighed on him. He knows what his kids are going through and the heart they show in persisting through each loss, but it can still be tough for him to relate at times.

“That’s my struggle, to stay positive,” Murphy said. “Because I’ve never played on — I’m not saying I couldn’t, but I never played on a team that bad. I’ve never had that experience. I don’t know if I could do it. They’re doing it, though! But everybody who is a support system for me — friend-wise, other coaches, other people — they always say ‘Just keep doing it. It’s over time. It’s a slow process.’”

Moved by Tragedy

Murphy’s outlook — and the story of how he ended up at St. Michaels — is wholly shaped by loss in a different light.

His son, Patrick, suddenly passed away in June 2018 at age 16.

Mike and Patrick did everything together. Patrick was a busy athlete, playing on travel teams in baseball, basketball and soccer. Mike was often driving his son and his teammates — including current Kent Island senior Cole Kratovil — across the Bay Bridge multiple times per week for that. They hunted and fished together as well.

It was a tragic loss for the Murphy family.

“It was a shock to everybody, as I’m sure it was to Mike,” said Frank Kratovil, who knew of Murphy from their college days at Western Maryland before their kids became involved in sports together. “I can’t imagine having to deal with the loss of a child. It’s got to be heartbreaking.”

Murphy carries his son’s memory with him every day. He remains moved by the way he acted toward others. Mike recalled a time when he was driving with Patrick, and another driver cut him off. Mike yelled at the driver, and Patrick said ‘Dad, stop.’

“I’m just inspired by the courage of my son,” Mike said. “Not to give up, and just to keep fighting. And to always take the high road.”

Patrick was a three-sport athlete at Easton High School, and was teammates and friends with many kids still playing high school sports locally, including Robinson.

“(Mike is) the reason I’m playing, because his son passed away, and I knew his son,” Robinson said. “That’s the reason why I play. If he wasn’t coaching, I probably wouldn’t have played. He’s just been an amazing coach.”

Mike got back into coaching not long after Patrick’s passing. The St. Michaels job was open, and the timing worked out for Murphy.

He thinks of his son every day, and an experience such as losing a child can reshape perspectives of coaching and life.

“I think when you lose somebody that you love — in particular, I would think, a child — it probably only reinforces that recognition that, ultimately,” Kratovil said, “our job as coaches is to teach the kids how to compete fairly, hard, and learn that in anything in life, if you want to succeed, you’ve got to do your best and make the most of your abilities. On the other hand, recognizing that when it’s over, you move on and tomorrow’s a new day.”

Valuable Life Lessons

Murphy has made tangible progress since joining on at St. Michaels.

Bailey could tell from their conversations that Murphy is emphasizing the right things and teaching his kids discipline. Even keeping 15 players on the roster for a full season is an accomplishment at St. Michaels.

Femi has the utmost faith in Murphy.

“He’s dedicated. He’s here every day,” Femi said. “He runs a summer program with (the kids) through Chesapeake College. He does everything in his power to be able to get things going. And he wants to do it. He wants to stay involved, he wants to make the program better. I’ve certainly liked everything that he’s done.”

There are a lot of life lessons they’ve learned from playing on this Saints team. This situation teaches them to work hard no matter the conditions, to never give up, that sometimes life isn’t fair and how to deal with that, and to have thick skin.

One of the more important values it’s taught the players is the importance of teammates. The players rely on each other through the difficult times.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re losing or winning, there’s people here to help you,” Robinson said. “They have your back if you’re down. They’ll tell you at halftime that you’re doing something wrong, they’ll tell you to fix it. They just care about you. The team just cares about you.”

Murphy has been essential in teaching those life lessons. He knows these kids aren’t going on to basketball playing careers in college or beyond, and the values gained from this experience are more important than the tangible basketball skills. So he makes sure he emphasizes the right things in practices and games.

One time, Murphy recalled, a Saints player came out of a game, got upset and kicked something.

Murphy said ‘‘If you did that at your job, what would happen?’

The player responded ‘I’d get fired.’

And Murphy said ‘Well, why is this any different?’

“I can sit here and yell and scream and say ‘Do this! Do this! Do that!’ But if they don’t believe it and do it and (it) comes from themselves, it’s not going to happen,” Murphy said. “That’s my biggest struggle.”

More than anything, Femi credited the players and coaches for their efforts through challenging circumstances.

“It’s easy to go out and play on teams that win,” Femi said. “To play basketball on a team that you know going in it’s going to be very difficult to get a win, I think it takes a lot of character, it takes a lot of heart, it takes desire. And some kids and some coaches aren’t built to make the effort to try to turn it around. I can’t say enough good things about our kids that played and our coaches that have coached during this time. I would love to see them get a win just to get the monkey off their back.”

Follow me on Twitter @SethTow. Follow us on Instagram @StarDem_Sports.

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