BINGHAMTON – The conversation was brief, though a tad awkward.
Jim Santoro approached a towering freshman and informed him that he would be playing for the varsity boys basketball team at Our Lady of Lourdes High School.
James Anozie said: “Umm, well, uhh… I thought I might be on junior varsity.”
Santoro replied: “Junior varsity? Pft. You might be starting for me on varsity.”
Anozie was left speechless and stared at the coach with a look of bewilderment.
That was during the autumn of 2013.
On Sunday, those two embraced as theirs were the last names called to receive the state Class A runner-up plaque and medals. Lourdes’ season had just ended, and so too an era, as the Warriors fell to Irondequoit in the state final at Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena.
Santoro and Anozie had led this team on a sparkling and surprising run that brought Lourdes well beyond where this program ever had gone. And they were showered with cheers from hundreds of fans who trekked from Poughkeepsie — feelings of gratitude and sentimentality, likely, wrestling with the disappointment in that moment.
“These four years went by really fast,” said Anozie, a senior. “I can’t believe that it’s over already. But I’m pretty proud of what we did.”
For Santoro, his 28 years as the Warriors head coach also have zipped by more quickly than expected. But these last four, with Anozie, have been fruitful. And this last one, certainly, will be memorable.
The 6-foot-5 center fought through constant double teams to get 18 points and five rebounds for Lourdes in the 54-43 loss on Sunday. He also was named to the all-tournament team. Another honor added to a lengthy list of achievements that includes being named the Journal’s Player of the Year as a junior, and setting the program scoring record and topping 1,500 career points last month.
And it was Santoro who guided this group, fifth-seeded underdogs in Section 1, all the way to the state’s grand stage on the season’s final day. The Warriors, who had last won a section title in 2013, had never before advanced beyond the regional semifinals.
“At least we got this for him,” said Anozie, who insisted all along that a motivational source was in wanting to deliver his coach a state title. “We wanted to win it for him, and we didn’t get it. But at least we made school history.”
Santoro first noticed Anozie as an eighth-grader playing CYO basketball. Then, when he enrolled at Lourdes for his freshman year and showed up to an open-gym tryout, Santoro said, he immediately whispered to his assistant coaches: “This kid is gonna be on varsity.”
He had the size and talent, and despite being 14 years old, could hold his own against juniors and seniors in practice. Three days after tryouts, Santoro broke the news to Anozie that he had not only earned a varsity roster spot, but would likely become the pillar around which the team was built in the coming years.
“He told me I had all this potential and I didn’t believe it,” Anozie said. “I couldn’t grasp it then. But he wasn’t lying. Look where we are now.”
Santoro, players said, is a diligent strategist who sifts through heaps of film and spends countless hours in preparation for games. He at times is jovial, but never has he been hesitant to snap at his team during practice. There is little tolerance for mental errors or shoddy play. That goes for Anozie, too.
“He’s a great coach and a great guy,” said Corey Mullaly, a senior who compared Santoro favorably to his football coach Brian Walsh, who had led that team to an unlikely state final run in 2015.
In fact, Mullaly said, Santoro sought out Walsh for advice before Lourdes faced top-seeded Byram Hills in the Section 1 semifinals.
“Him and Walsh are very similar,” Mullaly said. “They’re great minds in their respective sports and have a lot of passion for teaching.”
Santoro said he never before had a roster he thought could make a push for a state title.
“I’d never had a player like James before,” the coach said. “From that perspective, I’d never had a team like this before.”
Some of those sentiments likely were expressed during that hug on the court, and there perhaps will be even more in the coming days.
There was no fairytale ending for the duo. But man, what a riveting final chapter they penned.
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4