Hope Christian pays the price for dynasty

Hope Christian celebrates its sixth state championship since 1999. Sean Linnehan/ESPNRISE.com

The big celebration number at the close of Disney's "High School Musical," set in fictitious East High School in Albuquerque, N.M., was "We're All in This Together." The 2008-09 boys' basketball team at Hope Christian (Albuquerque) had its own motivational phrase: "Pay the Price."

Jim Murphy, the Huskies' coach for 27 seasons, didn't want his players to forget all the hard work and weight-room trips and 6 a.m. practices and summer games that went into the quest to win a first Class 3A state championship. That's why the slogan made it to T-shirts and posters around the school.

Happy endings occur in real life, just like in the movie. It was easy for Hope Christian to grow strong with a typical schedule filled with 5A and 4A non-district opponents, then survive an overtime thriller against city rival Sandia Prep in the state semifinal and defeat St. Michael's (Santa Fe) in the championship game. While it was the Huskies' first 3A title, that merely added to a collection of six boys' state basketball titles in the last 11 seasons and was the eighth title overall.

With a starting lineup of one senior and four juniors, the Huskies won their last 21 games to finish 28-3, losing only to 5A schools. They certainly paid the price and might have even sung about it if asked.

"We had a lot of chemistry," said senior center Connor Pierce, one of only two seniors on the team along with fellow co-captain Matt Escajeda. "We always cared more about the team than personal things. No one really kept track of their own points. We just made sure we won."

In 2006, Hope Christian moved up to 3A after running off five 2A titles in eight years. The Huskies immediately reached the 3A final but lost to St. Michael's 64-47. In 2008, they went into the playoffs seeded second but were knocked off in the second round by Pojoaque (Santa Fe), which went on to claim the championship.

The march to this year's state tournament at The Pit, on the University of New Mexico campus, began about this time a year ago. The Huskies traveled across the West to play in some of the best summer competitions available. In fact, many of the players on the 2008-09 team had played together going back to elementary school.

"We had a good core of players that have played together for a number of years," Murphy said, "just a very seasoned group as far as basketball experience."

The Huskies play up-tempo ball at both ends of the court -- no letting up. Pierce said the team's coaches are "probably the most passionate about the game of anyone that I know. They're intense."

Like, Bob Knight intense?

"Not as angry as him, but probably as into the game," said Pierce, who will play in the upcoming state all-star game in Las Vegas, N.M., and will head this fall to California Baptist University to major in engineering.

Coaching at Hope Christian is the only job that Murphy has known since growing up in Binghamton, N.Y., and graduating from Messiah College in Pennsylvania. His future wife was leaving the college's two-year nursing program and returning home to New Mexico to complete her degree at UNM. Murphy therefore sought work in Albuquerque and has been at Hope Christian ever since.

This year's Huskies took a few lumps in December, beginning with a 65-44 loss to Manzano (Albuquerque), ranked first in 5A at the time.

"We all thought we were pretty good," said Christian Schlenker, a 6-foot-4 junior forward who was the No. 2 scorer, at 12.4 points, and its top rebounder, averaging 8.4. "That really kind of opened our eyes that we needed to work hard every game."

The semifinal against Sandia Prep was the fourth meeting of the teams, with Hope Christian having won each of the previous three. If beating an opponent three times in a season is difficult, as the saying goes, what can going for four be like?

"Every game against them is harder," Schlenker said. "They really want to beat us, and they always bring a big crowd."

Sandia Prep led by two points with six seconds to play in the fourth quarter. "It looked kind of hopeless," Murphy said. He designed a play for junior guard Matt Murphy, his son, to take the final shot. Matt caught a pass in stride at midcourt, broke to the basket, and shot a running one-hander over one of Sandia Prep's taller players to send the game into overtime.

"As a dad, as a coach, I'll never forget that," Jim Murphy said.

Matt, who led the team in scoring at 17.1 points, is the second of Murphy's sons to play for him. Josh Murphy was a guard on the Hope Christian team that won the school's 2004 state championship.

And Micah is now coming up through the program. The coach said it was a little easier having Matt on the team after first experiencing the coach-son relationship with Josh.

"I know I made a lot of mistakes with my first son, and hopefully he'll forgive me for those," he said. "We don't talk basketball outside of the basketball court. It's a nice privilege to be around your children growing up."

Said Matt: "He picks on me and yells at me more, but I still like it a lot. My brother had the same thing, and my mother told him, 'You're not going to find a better coach.'"

Early this summer, the Huskies were traveling again. Schlenker; his brother Stephen, a freshman; and Pierce were part of a Hope Christian group making its annual two-week mission trip to Ecuador to help poverty-stricken children. The three, along with some other students, planned to play some formal basketball games against local teams.

When they arrived, they learned that some well-meaning advance billing had described them as a "dream team" and that they had games scheduled against, among others, a local college team.

"They were sorely disappointed," Schlenker said. "There were some pretty good teams down there, and we didn't have quite the players that we needed."

Hope Christian might not have been a dream team in Ecuador, but it appears the Huskies are already back together and working toward another title run.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.