Road to the State Championship: Zach Tapel’s season-long struggle

Despite being held out from playing for a knee injury, Zach Tapel (white shirt) has been with the Irish every step of the way. (Photo by Doug Ko)

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.”

Zach Tapel's impact on the football field was immense for the Irish and he played nearly every down before an injury sidelined him. (Photo by Eric Luis)

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.

Zach Tapel's football and basketball seasons came to an end when he was helped of the field by trainers against Mitty on Nov. 11. (Photo by Devin Chen)

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.

Zach Tapel playing against Riordan last season. (Photo by Devin Chen)

“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.”

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32 Comments

  1. Tabby says:

    I haven’t cried while reading an article in a long time. Kudos jbalan, great storytelling.

    • Luna Cobos says:

      Touching and heart warming story all in 1. Young men like Zach & other SHC alum make me proud to be a small part of the SHC Fball family & other sports. The coaches cannot do what they do without the foundation and support that familie’s and mom’s like Zachs have layed down. You will succeed in whatever you put your mind to Zach, we applaud you and wish you nothing but the best. <3 to you & your lovely mom, Evelyn. Coach L & Mrs. Coach. ( :

  2. Irish Fan says:

    Zach is a true athlete..He has shown great leadership, & enthusiasm and his mother raised him right. He will go far..I wish him the best in his future endeavors…Go Irish!! Good Luck Zach!! Stay strong!!

  3. Stunna says:

    That’s my dog.. Football team will be with you all the way no matter what. Brothers for life

  4. Basketball Fan says:

    I have known this young man since his first year at SHCP. He embodies what it means to be a leader. His ability to face his injury with such dignity is a lesson for all of us. Zach, you will go far in life as you have the focus and determination.
    My appreciation goes to Evelyn and to all parents who continue to support their young men and women in ways that promote strong values.
    The article brought tears to my eyes and humbled me.
    Thank you jbalan for writing it and helping us keep it real – it is about family and community.
    GO IRISH!

  5. nat says:

    What a story!! I’ve known Zach for a little while now and this really shook me up when I heard what happen to him. The kid is a warrior he will bounce back from this. Zach played for me 2 summers ago and played well at the AAU National in Memphis. His leadership and willingness to sacrifice his game for others,stood out the most to me. Last season, Zach came to me and said that while he wanted to play hoops last summer, he rather give a chance to a younger kid to get out on the circuit since he was going to focus on football. I thought that was very noble of a kid to pass up a summer of traveling to Vegas,LA, and Florida to give another kid that had basketball 1st on his list.
    Zach, your mom has raised you the right way and you will land on your feet. Take your time young man,I’m sure Menlo will be glad you came their way!! Good Luck Irish this weekend. Leave it all on the floor!!

  6. Izzy Borges says:

    I have so much respect for Zach now that I am going through the same struggle. He is an amazing person to stick with his team and support them the entire way. Goodluck to SHCP in state! I hope they pull through.

  7. WCal Fan says:

    Good luck to this kid at the next level. Sometime incidents like this make you a better and humble person.

  8. M Air J says:

    Amazing story. I am very impressed on Zach’s positive outlook. I know he will be successful and reach his goal of playing college football. Best of luck young man!

  9. Andres K says:

    Get better soon and I always knew you had the drive to go far in Athletics. good luck

  10. Devon Villanueva says:

    Going through what John-Luke Taylor, Erick Reyes and myself Devon Villanueva went through and to deal with it the way he did was amazing. I’ve looked up to this kid as well as Joshua Fox since I played basketball with them at St. Mary’s. They’re amazing role models and brothers. I want to congratulate both of them for being so successful in their high school careers.

    • Big guy 24 says:

      To Devon, that was an awsome group of kids at St.Marys-sf, Zack, Josh, D.K., Ricky, Erick, Michael, John luke, Villiami and Tyler Petroni was a good class of kids in both education-all honor roll kids and sports. You kids have represented SHC with class and pride. As a guy from the past has told you for a long time now Discipline-Pride-Respect makes you a success in life period. Good luck to guys in all future prospects! I know 2 big guys who are proud of you and you know who they are…

  11. SHC Alum says:

    Great article, I have known Zach since he was a little, great kid, great athlete.

  12. Labirdsfan says:

    Nice story……..

  13. Justa Fan says:

    Great story. Well wishes to Zach in the future.

  14. Zach's mom says:

    Jeremy, THANK YOU so much for taking the time to write about my son. I teared up just reading this article. It hurts me just at much as it does Zach that he has to sit out this entire basketball season. This truely tells the story of how Zach wishes so much to get back to playing ball and in time he will. With a lot of support from his coaches, friends, family and his biggest fan – ME, he will get through this tough time.

    • SeanP says:

      As one parent to another, You have done an EXCELLENT job of raising this young man! I wish you both well in the future, and of course, GO IRISH!

  15. Keep it real says:

    Very nice
    Job JB!!! This kid is what you call
    Team player!!!

  16. Whatever says:

    Neat story. Zach sounds like a great young man who is lucky to have such strong family support. Best of luck to him.

  17. IC Stars says:

    That game should not have been played.

    • jbalan says:

      You’re talking about the Mitty football game, in relation to Tapel’s injury?

      • IC Stars says:

        Yes. I recall how the St. Francis game was moved because of a little sprinkle and I thought this game would be changed because of the pouring rain.

        • jbalan says:

          Yeah, if I remember correctly, the rain came late, which is why the game wasn’t moved or postponed.

          I thought you were making a comment that the field conditions contributed to Zach’s injury, which I don’t believe was the case.

          • IC Stars says:

            Where I was, it was pouring rain around 6:00 and I thought for certain there wouldn’t be a game so I can’t say if that mud had an effect. (Somebody put some Field Turf out there….).

  18. Chris says:

    Excellent story on a kid who plays sports and loves his school. Zach your leadership and devotion to the things you love are what good companies look for. You will be successful in life just keep that drive.

  19. Cathy Scharetg says:

    Zach and Evelyn are two of the greatest people on the planet. Zach is a phenomenal athlete and a beautiful Catholic young man. He is destined for greatness and this setback this year will only create a stronger leader and a more resilient young man. As good as he is on the court and field he is bigger, better, and tougher than any obstacle that comes his way. It is an honor to call Zach a friend, a champion, and a real leader.

  20. Ari Gold says:

    Damn injuries!!!! SH would not have lost CCS D3 vs SI if Zach did not blow out his knee. He was an important weapon on offense that wouldnt have allowed SI to key in just on Tino Miles every single play. He was also an all-league performer at DB and certainly wouldve made a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage on Dom T. Injuries are a part of the game and it was to SI’s benefit that Zach wasnt able to have an impact on the championship game.

    What a true leader Zach is. His injury was a silver lining for the basketball team. Khalil James and Deandre Otis’s games both excelled this year. Setting up solid experience and leadership for next year. And Zach was there every game giving encouragement and direction like Coach Barbour’s 4th coach on the bench.

    Get well Zach and thanks for serving as a great example for the SHC Irish community.

    • Johnny Drama says:

      Ari brother, after reading this, my list of people I like from SHC has increased to you, KG and the Tapel family…..Best of luck to this young man.

  21. Lowell House says:

    Missing a senior season, and what would have been an incredible one at that. What a bummer….

  22. IC Stars says:

    You’re right Ari. It probably would have made all the difference.

  23. Zach Masoli says:

    My boy Zach Tapel is going to bounce back harder than ever and he is going to make some big noise in college, be on the look out!

  24. Coach A says:

    This was a very powerful story toread about perhaps one of my favorite students of all time. Zach is not only a class act on the field, but in the classroom as well. I remember asking him for 3 years to be a part of my wrestling team. I knew he was a basketball player, but I wanted him purely out of selfishness. I saw the pure athleticism that this kid had and still has. He is a leader in school as he is on the field. I wish him the best in his future endeavors at CSM and beyond. I know Iwill be going to these games to cheer him and other students athletes on to victory.

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