Editor’s note: This is the third in a weeklong series of stories on the Sacred Heart Cathedral boys basketball team leading up to Saturday’s state championship game.
By Jeremy Balan
The most prominent decoration in Zach Tapel’s bedroom is a normal sheet of white paper pinned up above his bed.
It could have come from a printer, a copy machine or just a stack of similar pages, but it’s what is written on the sheet that drives Tapel, a senior on the Sacred Heart Cathedral boys basketball team.
It’s not fancy. In fact, it’s quite rudimentary. In thick black marker, Tapel wrote a date down, “11-11-11.”
It’s the date of one of the most painful moments of his life, both physically and emotionally.
It was senior night for the Sacred Heart football team at Kezar Stadium against Mitty, an evening that is supposed to celebrate the careers of the team’s leaders, including Tapel, a captain and key contributor on offense, defense and special teams.
In the second quarter, Tapel went down. He was in pursuit of a Mitty option play and someone hit his knee from the side. He could hear a loud “pop.” He still doesn’t know whether it was one of his teammates or a Mitty player and he doesn’t want to know. It doesn’t matter.
His mother Evelyn went down to the field and noticed something strange. Her son was crying.
“When he’s hurt, he doesn’t cry,” Evelyn said. “I just kept saying, ‘It can’t be.’”
The team, on-site doctor and team trainers were not entirely sure what the injury was, but they were hoping for a strained ligament, so he could return for a potential Central Coast Section championship game. Tapel went to his normal doctor on the following Monday, but didn’t see a specialist until Wednesday and the prognosis was not positive. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and would miss seven to nine months after surgery.
The rest of the football season was out of the question, as was playing for the basketball team, on which he started at point guard in the previous season.
At first, the shock of the news didn’t hit him, until he talked to his coaches.
With tears in his eyes, he struggled to give the news to head football coach John Lee.
“Don’t tell me it’s the worst,” Lee said to Tapel.
“It’s the worst,” Tapel responded.
The same went for his meeting with head basketball coach Darrell Barbour. The two cried together in Barbour’s small court-side office next to Christian Brothers Court. He was a junior varsity call up as a freshman on the 2009 team that won the program’s first state championship and now he would miss a chance to do it again, this time as a key piece on a team many favored to return to the title game.
Even now, peering out of Barbour’s office to watch the ongoing Irish practice on Tuesday, you can tell it still hurts. It hurt even more sitting in the Power Balance Pavilion locker room in Sacramento on Saturday during the Northern California regional championship, the same place he sat in 2009.
“Some games are just hard to go to, even going to practice is hard.” Tapel said. “I just think about how I was there last year and as a sophomore. When we were sophomores, Josh [Fox], Taylor [Johns] and I were the babies of the team and it was our goal to make it to state our senior year.”
But he still goes, at first on Evelyn’s urging, to support his teammates. When Fox injured his ankle in the West Catholic Athletic League championship game in the first quarter and missed the rest of the title game, Tapel was one of the first to comfort him. He had been there.
“It kills him, but he’s part of the team and he needs to be there,” Evelyn said.
After the expected moments where he asked “why me?”, Tapel turned a corner. The paper went up on his wall. He became a teacher. He never missed a football practice and became a member of the coaching staff. He also mentors young point guards Khalil James and DeOndre Otis, who have filled in admirably in Tapel’s absence.
At the beginning of the season, Evelyn asked Barbour if she and Zach should be around, even if he wouldn’t be able to play and the coach was definitive in his answer.
“He’s a part of this team,” Barbour said. “His toughness, his leadership embodies what this team is. The guys who have been around him — he’s instilled some of that stuff in them.”
Now, Evelyn is still involved with the team and Zach can still hear her from the bench, screaming and dancing in the stands. For his entire life, Evelyn, as a single mother, has been Tapel’s rock. He needed that support after the CCS football championship game at AT&T Park, when he bawled after the game, and after basketball’s senior night against Mitty, where he received one of the loudest ovations while in street clothes.
“It’s heartbreaking to see him break down, because my son has such a passion in everything he does,” Evelyn said.
Tapel has been there every step of the way for Sacred Heart basketball this season, including the Bruce-Mahoney game against rival St. Ignatius, where he was as excited in winning as if he had played 32 minutes.
One lasting moment from the aftermath of the game at the University of San Francisco tells you all you need to know about Tapel. After the final buzzer, he went with the team up to the student section in the upper deck and nearly leaped into the embrace of his quarterback, Jack Harrington. The pair had teamed up to beat the Wildcats in the first leg of the series.
“If anyone deserves success in his senior year it’s that kid,” Lee said. “He’s just a first-class kid and I’m proud to say I got a chance to coach him.”
Tapel’s career on the field and court may be complete at Sacred Heart, but it’s that paper above his bed, which he also took a picture of to carry with him every day on his cell phone, that continues to drive him to pursue a college football career at the College of San Mateo, where he has committed to play next season.
“Every time I wake up, every time I go to sleep, it’s right there,” Tapel said. “It’s supposed to be a lucky day and it wasn’t for me, but I use it as motivation.”