For Ozanam Eagles, Basketball Gives a Sense of Purpose

The eighth-seeded Ozanam Eagles boys’ basketball team played its opening round of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament on February 20, facing the top-seeded Independence Home School Lions. 

A significant number of personnel changes throughout the season had Ozanam suiting eight players for the single-elimination tournament game. The Eagles started an eighth grader at guard and gave playing time to the team manager to fill in the gaps. 

The remaining eight players are far from the 30 boys in residential treatment or attending the Day Treatment School who started strength and conditioning for the basketball team at the beginning of the school year. As the season progressed, the remaining Eagles embraced their role as underdogs.  

Ozanam got off to a rocky start against IHS. They made one shot, a three-pointer, in the first quarter and gave up a few easy baskets as IHS players beat the Eagles down the court in transition. At the end of the quarter, Ozanam trailed 15-3.  

Sports are a big part of the culture for some of the Ozanam youth. Ozanam Athletic Director Randy Smith says winning isn’t as important at Ozanam as building character by being a good teammate, showing sportsmanship, and learning to overcome adversity. 

Overcoming adversity can come from digging your way out of a 15-3 deficit. Before the start of the second quarter, Head Coach John Arrandale focused the players’ attention on eliminating some of the mistakes, and the Eagles hit a couple of three-pointers to cut into the IHS lead. About halfway through the second quarter, with the Lions leading 20-10, the coach called a timeout.  

“Our guys were starting to get mad and arguing with each other. I reminded them this is basketball, and if we get a couple of stops and hit a couple of shots, we will be back in it,” said John. “I told them to keep a positive attitude and keep fighting, and they responded.” 

With about two minutes left in the quarter, the Eagles cut the IHS lead to 21-15. The crowd, including about 25 Ozanam youth, began cheering for the team.  

“The crowd got so loud that I was having trouble communicating with the players,” said John. “That was a great atmosphere.” 

With less than a minute left in the quarter, Ozanam got a steal and a layup to cut the IHS lead to 21-17 at halftime. 

This is John’s second year as the Eagles basketball coach. On the Ozanam Campus, he is a paraprofessional at the Day Treatment School, and Assistant Coach Sada Smith is a therapist. John doesn’t have a deep basketball background. He was a college soccer player, and his son plays college basketball.  

When he took over, John replaced longtime Ozanam coach Willie Hutson. John was a little apprehensive about taking the reins from a coach with legendary status. Annually, the Willie Hutson Award is given to the player who is exemplary on and off the court. Some of Willie Hutson’s past players attended games and returned to campus to visit with their coach. Some of those past players even have tattoos saying, “Once an Eagle, Always an Eagle.” 

“Taking over was stressful,” said John. “Willie had a great relationship with his players.”  

John used his soccer background to create a culture of camaraderie and develop a work ethic among his players. As a competitive college athlete, he had to learn to pay less attention to winning and more to team development. He also learned a coaching lesson about giving players feedback.  

“I learned about addressing an issue with a player during a practice or a game,” he said. “I realized I had to wait until things have calmed down so the kids don’t get escalated.” 

Whatever feedback the coach gave the team at halftime seemed to work, and the Eagles carried their momentum into the third quarter. A pair of free throws cut the IHS lead to 21-19, and a three-pointer about a minute later gave Ozanam its first lead, 22-21.  

Basketball is often a game of runs, and the Lions picked up some easy baskets to put IHS up 33-24. Ozanam managed to get back in the game with a couple of baskets, including a shot at the buzzer to trail at the end of three quarters, 33-29.  

A couple of hours before the tournament game, John huddled the team and showed them YouTube highlights of great college and NBA performances, including Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006. John reminded his players of the many times an underdog beat a higher-seeded team in the NCAA tournament. He wanted his players to know it was possible. 

In the fourth quarter, Ozanam players were getting fatigued, and IHS led 43-33 midway through the final quarter. The Eagles continued to get stops on defense and managed to cut the lead to 43-38 with 1:45 left in the game but couldn’t get any closer. Top-seeded IHS hung on to win.  

“Our guys were pretty upset after the game, partly because it was our last game of the season,” John said. “The players were supporting each other in the locker room after the game, telling each other they played a great game, and we should be proud of each other. It was the most maturity I saw in them all season long.” 

The Eagles finished the season at 9-13, but they look at winning a little differently at Ozanam. 

“We have kids with some serious issues, and sometimes our basketball team may be the best thing they have going on in their life,” said John. “They get invested in our team.” 

*Photos from Ozanam's final regular season game against Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy.