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O'Neill, former Sals reflect on basketball championship

It's been a bit crazy around Salesianum School the last few weeks thanks to the basketball team, which won its first state championship with a 50-45 win over St. Georges Tech on March 8 at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark.

For forward Brian O'Neill, the championship game was his last that counted in the standings. The 6-7 senior will continue his athletic career as a football player at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. He scored 15 points in the final and helped cut down the nets. Then the fun started at 18th and Broom.

“Everybody’s so excited that we finally got it done,” O'Neill said after the Blue-Gold All-Star basketball game March 15 at the Bob Carpenter Center. “The trophy’s standing right there in the front office so you see it when you walk in. It’s been countless texts, phone calls, from Sallies alums and fans, everything, and it’s just been great. The whole ride has been so much fun.”

This was Salesianum's sixth opportunity to win a state title in basketball, the only sport in which the school had not done so. Mike LaPenta played on the first championship contender in 1975, when the Sals were beaten by Cape Henlopen, 83-48. LaPenta, who now lives in Rehoboth Beach, said that Salesianum team was not expected to advance that far.

“We were an underdog. Just to get there was a big deal for our group,” he said.

LaPenta also went to the final in 1983 as an assistant coach. That team, which he said should have won, lost to Wilmington High School, 48-42. He was later the Sals' head coach for five seasons.

He was in the stands for several games this season and was thrilled to see Brendan Haley win the title in his second year as head coach.

“I am ecstatic. I had such a great day,” he said. “The emotions, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. And I’m so happy for Brendan. He’s such a class guy, he’s an outstanding coach.”

Brandon Baffone, currently an assistant, expressed similar sentiments. He said Haley has been a great mentor and role model and deserved to coach a championship team.

“It was incredible for me to be able to cut down a piece of (the net), but it was even better to witness everyone else do it. When Coach Haley cut down the last piece and showed the remaining net to the crowd it was very emotional and it started to kick in that we had won it all.

“I have been blessed to see him grow as a coach over the years but more importantly have him as a lifelong friend and true role model to all of the young men at Sallies,” Baffone said.

Baffone credited the loyal Salesianum following with helping the team throughout the season. In addition to hundreds of current students, hordes of alumni – including LaPenta, several of his friends and former players – were on hand at the Bob. Baffone called the student body the team's “sixth man.”

Haley was an assistant and Baffone a player on the 1991 and '93 teams, which both made the finals. The Sals fell to Sanford in '91 and Glasgow two seasons later. The team also reached the championship game 10 years ago, falling to Middletown.

“After going 47 seasons with five title game appearances and several more trips to the semis, it was really hard to believe we had won it all,” Baffone said, adding that no one on the bench breathed easy until the final seconds.

LaPenta never thought it would take so long for Salesianum to reach the pinnacle, particularly considering how many wins the program has over the years. “Oh my gosh, no. Basketball is really one of our strongest sports.”

Now they have the trophy to prove it.