For Trinity’s five seniors, the past three years have been a steady climb.
The boys basketball team (26-3), winners of six straight District 3 championships, kept rising through the state bracket each year beginning in 2017 — a second-round exit that year, a semifinal appearance in 2018, and, finally, a state championship berth.
For all five — center Kalen Veres, forwards Patrick Walker and Conor Moore, and guards Ben Gnall and Matt Long — it has been a journey. One the quintet took together, once Veres joined the crew following his freshman year at Red Land.
That journey, through practices, backup roles, setbacks, losses — but a lot of winning — has them one win away from the Shamrocks’ third ever PIAA championship. All they must do — no pressure — is beat WPIAL champ Lincoln Park (25-4) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hershey’s Giant Center.
“It’s a big deal,” said Moore (3.5 ppg), a key front court reserve. “Because we’ve all put in four years of effort. All the hard times with each other, good times, it’s good to cap it off with a big win, hopefully.”
“It just means so much that we can carry on the tradition that the guys before us have done, and the coaches before us have done,” Walker (12.0 ppg) said.
Walker cited a particular inspiration of his on the coaching staff: assistant Larry Kostelac III, who won one of Trinity’s two previous state titles. The son of the head coach, Larry Kostelac Jr., wears his championship ring all the time, Walker said. It’s a reminder of the program’s standard.
Trinity’s tradition is mentioned every year. They have a history, and an expectation, of excellence.
Five PIAA championship appearances. Two titles. Fifty-nine state tournament victories. Nineteen District 3 titles, second only to Reading. One of the state’s winningest head coaches in Kostelac Jr. (725-284).
Winning is expected. And the mastermind of it all, at the start of each of his 35 seasons, has given his seniors the same speech.
“As I’ve told them from Day 1, and I’ve told it to 34 other teams, ‘We’re gonna be as good as you five seniors allow us to be and lead us to be,’” Kostelac said before Wednesday’s practice. “They’ve just done a great job. They’ve done everything we’ve asked and then some.”
Veres is asked to rebound, score and create havoc on the interior. Walker is long and can knock down shots from multiple spots. Long has drained several critical 3s during the postseason and is perhaps the most underrated starter. Gnall is a sniper off the bench, and when he gets open on the left corner, his teammates know he’s money. And Moore transformed his body in one offseason, Kostelac said, providing valuable, physical minutes when Veres needs to sit.
And they get along well.
“Probably the jokes everyone makes,” Long (6.1 ppg) said when asked what his favorite part of this senior class is. “Just from messing with Kalen and messing with Pat.”
“We’re all brothers,” Veres (7.3 ppg) said. “We all love each other. It’s just the best feeling, ‘cause I know every single one of them got my back.”
These seniors, unlike some in recent years, are not the vocal sort. And while some are leading rebounders or scorers, not all are. Each has a role.
But collectively, they’ve also been tasked with uniting the rest of the team behind them, particularly incoming freshmen like breakout guard Chance Westry, plus transfers like Christopher Hartley (Northern) and Aley Zangari (Red Land).
“Like last year, I think the reason we went so far is because everyone got along. A lot of that has to do with the culture Coach Koz has brought up through Trinity basketball,” Long said. “We all have each other’s backs, and we all play for each other.”
“Some people might’ve thought, ‘Oh, they might take our minutes,’” Gnall (2.1 ppg) said. “But we just made sure that they were welcome. They’re here to help us out. Without Chance, Chris and Aley we wouldn’t be where we are, and I think everyone on the team knows that. And they know that without us, they wouldn’t be here either.”
Veres knows exactly what it’s like to step into this culture as an outsider.
“Just to make them feel like home, like they were here all four years,” Veres said. “Just like I transferred and everyone else made me feel like this was my home.”
Objectively, they’ve done an admirable job assimilating all the new talent. Walker pointed out they must have, because they’re playing for state gold.
And while Kostelac said this group has done everything he could’ve asked of them and more, there’s one last piece of business to take care of.
After he was done answering questions about his classmates, Veres walked back to shooting drills but had one last thing to say.
“We’re going to win.”