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Brandeis boys basketball team set standard for school's athletic program

Broncos became the first squad in school history to reach the state semifinals in a team sport.

SAN ANTONIO — Years from now when their temples start to turn gray, they will remember the thrill of standing near the summit and the disappointment of being denied the opportunity to continue their climb.

They will remember feeling helpless as a pandemic, of all things, turned the world upside down and left sports in a state of suspended animation. 

Two weeks ago, the players on the Brandeis boys basketball team were flushed with anticipation as they prepared to play in the UIL state tournament for the first time in school history.

The Broncos (33-3) were scheduled to face defending champion Duncanville (29-5) in the 6A semifinals on Friday night, March 13, at the Alamodome. But the game never tipped off.

The University Interscholastic League suspended the three-day state tournament on Thursday after only four games were played, leaving 20 teams in the UIL's six classifications hanging.

"Getting to the state tournament was a dream come true for us," Brandeis team captain Kyle Schaefer, who has committed to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs said Tuesday. "Of course, we didn't get to finish it, but it's a huge accomplishment, especially since no one picked us to get there.

"I'm always going to remember how well we competed together, and how well we played together. We played as a team. It wasn't one guy doing it all. Everybody contributed and did their part," said Schaefer.

Two other Greater San Antonio teams, Wagner and Cole, earned berths in the tournament. Only Cole got the chance to play, beating Peaster in the 3A semifinals in the fourth and final game. The Cougars would have played defending champion Dallas Madison for the state title Saturday morning.

Wagner (35-5) was scheduled to play defending champion Mansfield Timberview (29-8) in the 5A semifinals Thursday night. The game was a rematch of last year's title game won by Timberview.

Credit: David Flores / Kens5.com
Brandeis starters Ty Fontenot, left to right, Tanner Brown, Andrew Lazinbat and Kyle Schaefer were teammates since they were in the sixth grade.

UIL executive director Charlie Breithaupt left open the possibility of resuming the state tournament later this spring, but the chances of that happening appear more remote with each passing day.

With the country reeling from the scourge of the coronavirus, schools across the state remain closed. Even if there were an opportunity to play the rest of the tournament this spring, the logistics would be problematic.

Brandeis coach Marc Gardner and his players have resigned themselves to accepting that their season is done.

"It's the lack of closure that is the tough part," Gardner said Tuesday. "When it was first announced, that's when it really hit me the hardest. You feel bad for the team. Heck, I feel bad for myself. You work your whole career to get the chance to get there and finally it happens, and you don't get to play.

"Your initial reaction, obviously, was a disappointment. But we still met with the kids later that Thursday when everything got suspended. We just talked big picture of why this was happening. It's such a good group of kids and they're smart. They were disappointed, but I think they understood."

The season was a historic one for the Broncos, who became the first Brandeis squad since the school opened in 2008 to reach the state semifinals in a team sport.

While the UIL's decision was a blow to the Broncos, they weren't caught off guard. With the NBA suspending its season on the Wednesday before the start of the UIL tournament and the NCAA on the verge of canceling March Madness, Brandeis players could see the proverbial writing on the wall.

Still, the Broncos had a spirited workout Thursday morning and were looking forward to watching Wagner play that night.

"We were planning on going," Gardner said. "The kids were going to come to school at 5:45 and then we were going to drive down to the dome. My whole plan was to go watch Wagner, but at the same time, let them see the atmosphere, let them experience it.

"Let them go buy programs and souvenirs and get that out of their system. That way, Friday it's a business trip. That was the goal."

Credit: David Flores / Kens5.com
The UIL's message on the Alamodome JumboTron tells the story of the fate of the boys basketball state tournament this year.

Gardner was at home relaxing Thursday afternoon when he received several texts from coaching friends watching the third game of the state tournament. The messages included photos of the Alamodome scoreboard showing the UIL's announcement that the tournament was being suspended.

Shortly thereafter, Gardner heard from a UIL official, Brandeis principal Geri Berger and Northside ISD athletic director Stan Laing. Gardner immediately texted his players, who still went by Brandeis later Thursday to pick up their state-tournament T-shirts.

Schaefer was joined in the starting lineup by seniors Tanner Brown, Ty Fontenot, and Andrew Lazenbat, and junior Gavin Gibson. Brown, a guard, was named to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches 6A All-State team earlier this week.

Brown, Fontenot, Lazenbat and Schaefer have been teammates since they were in the sixth grade. The key reserves were seniors Kris Bowen and Cole Cervantes. 

"There aren't a lot of teams that can say they went 33-3 and made it to the state tournament," Brown said. "It sucks that the tournament was suspended, but we'll always take pride in how far we came. We had great team chemistry and had a remarkable season."

The Broncos beat teams with tough defense and a balanced offense that spread the scoring.

Credit: David Flores / Kens5.com
Marc Gardner, the only head boys basketball coach Brandeis has had since opening in 2008, has gone 256-132 in 12 seasons and led the Broncos to the playoffs eight times.

"We played teams that had one or two guys that averaged like 16 of 18 points," said Brown. "Those are the guys we focused on when we were on defense. But the other team had to account for every single one of our players when we were on offense.

"We could all knock down shots, and we could all get to the basket. It was a team effort. That's what set us apart," said Brown.

Gardner, the only head boys basketball coach Brandeis has had, is 256-132 in 12 seasons with the Broncos. Brandeis has made the playoffs eight times under Gardner, including each of the last five years, and reached the regional finals twice.

Gardner called this season's team "a special group" that had a high IQ on and off the court. Eleven of the 13 players on the squad made the District 28-6A All-Academic team.

"That was one of the key components in our success," Gardner said. "These kids are smart. Another key component was that we had a big group of our seniors who had been playing together since elementary school. That was big.

"They not only played together. They're friends on and off the court. They hang out with each other and do things together. Another thing about them was how unselfish they were on the court. It's crazy to think we went 33-3 at the 6A level, and not a single kid on that team is getting a Division I basketball scholarship."

In the end, the sum of their parts made the Broncos tough to beat and fun to watch.