Santa Barbara News-Press
July 9, 2009 10:49 AM
J.T. Royston felt all alone last winter as he toed the free-throw line during the defining moment of his sophomore basketball season.
No time remained on the clock and the Lions of Providence Hall still trailed by a point.
But Royston will tell you that he had felt much lonelier just a year earlier - during the opening week of practice at the new school.
"We had a few people come in and out the first day," he recalled, "but the next day, nobody else was even there."
He made both free shots to make Providence Hall a winner, and a rush of teammates promptly hugged away the loneliness.
A lot is indeed changing for Santa Barbara's newest high school.
"That actually happened twice last year, when we were down a point and J.T. was shooting a one-and-one with basically no time on the clock," said coach Keith Luberto, who doubles as Providence's athletic director. "He made them both - both times."
The Christian school, which shares a stately, two-story building with a Catholic grammar school at the corner of Anacapa and Micheltorena Streets, opened in 2007 with 27 students. Its enrollment grew to 41 last year, and the expectations are for up to 60 students this fall.
Providence has a lot going for it, including support from parent/super model Kathy Ireland, an enthusiastic Christian community - and a handful of standout athletes who are giving its athletic director some ambitious goals for their first official CIF basketball season of 2010-11. The enrollment is projected to be in the 80s by then.
"The expectations are that we'll make the playoffs and do well there," said Luberto, who is arranging a schedule of mostly home-school varsity teams for next season. "And if our girls' team keeps progressing, it'll have a chance to become Southern Section champs."
Providence also fields teams in cross country, girls volleyball and track.
Its athletic fortunes have benefitted from the providence of some family connections. Former Santa Barbara High basketball star Cara Emerson, whose daughter Faith plays for the powerhouse Blazers basketball club, works as the assistant to the headmaster.
"I found out that the academic standards were outstanding," said Faith, a 5-foot-9 freshman, "so I said, 'Let's go there! Let's go there!' "
But then it hit her: "Where's the team?"
Royston had a similar exchange with his mother, Joy, who served on Providence's founding board of directors.
"My first choice was to go to DP," he said, referring to Dos Pueblos High School. "But one day my mom said, 'You're going to Providence.' I said, 'OK ... Is there a team?'
"She was like, 'Well, we just got a coach.' I said, 'All right then.' "
But a coach was about all Providence had at the time.
"For awhile, it was just him and me out there on the basketball court," Royston said. "Knowing that we didn't have anybody else, that was really hard for me. I mean, I'm just one person.
"The first year was extremely rocky. We had just enough players to have a team, and most of them were seventh and eighth graders."
Providence, playing against primarily club teams, won only two of 14 games.
The fortunes of the Providence boys turned around when a new player showed up during last year's local frosh-soph summer league. Her name was Faith Emerson.
"We twice beat a local public school by 25 points - I won't name the school," Luberto said. "In one of the games, we were shooting a foul shot, and their boy came down with a rebound - and Faith just ripped it out of his hands.
"She then scored right in his face while getting fouled. The way boys are, I was thinking, 'This kid isn't going to live this down for the rest of his life.' "
The Providence boys went 12-3 last winter with a lineup that also included Nicki Burgo, Royston's teammate from the 805 Basketball Club. Ireland's son, Erik Olsen, even joined the team to help fill out the thin roster.
"She's come to a lot of games, even when Erik wasn't playing," Luberto said.
"I remember our first game and the boys' first game, and the big turnout we got from board members, faculty and students," Emerson added. "It was so incredible that our student body could support each other like a family."
The boys have continued their success in this summer's junior varsity league.
"We played against what DP expects to be their JV and lost by only three," Luberto said. "We were up by four with a couple of minutes to go, but we've only got seven guys, and all these teams have like 14 or 15, and so we get worn out at the end."
They could've used Emerson, but she's been busy this summer with an unbeaten Providence girls' team that's added other Blazers including Lindsay Beebe, Sydney Hedges and Lacey Gonzalez.
"They've been beating all the other JVs by 20, 30 points," said Luberto, who hired former UCSB stars Sha'Rae Gibbons and Jenna Green to coach them. "Just watching them practice, I can tell they're good players and that they're well-coached."
Providence will join CIF in 2010 as a free-lance school, but Luberto would like to join a league.
"The Condor League is local, for the most part, with Laguna Blanca and Cate, and several schools from Ojai and the (Santa Ynez) Valley," he said. "But there's also a group of Christian schools in the Ventura and Camarillo area called the Omega Conference that looks appealing.
"But they already have eight teams, so I'm not sure where we'll end up."
Finding court time is a more immediate concern. Providence has practiced and played in the gymnasiums of such institutions as the Page Center, Girls Inc., St. Mary's Seminary and even the Montecito Convenant Church.
To keep up his spirits in the search for a gym, Luberto carries a book called "The Miracle of St. Anthony."
"St. Anthony is a school that's never had a gym and has still won three national championships," he said.
Westmont College did offer Murchison Gym to Providence for one night of basketball last season. The college has strong ties to the school, with its former president, Dr. David Winter, having come out of retirement to serve as Providence's first headmaster. One of Westmont's faculty members, Dr. Jane Wilson, served last year as the academic dean at Providence.
"They've really kind of adopted us as their little brother or sister," Luberto said. "We had about 400 people come out to our game there. A lot of Westmont students turned out - we bribed them with pizza, but they were still there.
"Coach John Moore has offered to do a mini-camp for our guys and Kirsten Moore, their women's coach, is interested in doing those things, too."
Several of Westmont's baseball players even helped Royston and his basketball teammates with their weight training.
Royston has dreams of playing NCAA Division 1 basketball some day, but Emerson liked what she saw at Westmont.
"I just hope maybe I can get to the level where I'd be accepted there," she said.
The team from Providence has already gained acceptance in her club basketball circles.
"They used to ask me what school I go to, and I'd tell them Providence, and they wouldn't know what I was talking about," Emerson said. "But now we're out there, beating these other JV teams by a lot, and they're going, 'Oh, you go to Providence.' "
The name now rolls off the tongue, as easily as the victories.