GREENSBURG - Three years ago, Cosie Aliquo made an unheard of move by giving the captaincy of a defending district championship team to three sophomores.
"They were great," Aliquo said. "They're like my little brothers, and I treated them like that."
Taking that lead, Marcus Lee, David Maruca and Mitchell Madonna fostered a feeling of family on the Bishop Carroll Catholic boys basketball team and set in motion a run of Husky basketball that won't easily be matched.
"I'm one of the only Bishop Carroll basketball players to make it to the district final four years in a row," Madonna said. "I'm obviously proud of this year going 28-1. I believe it's three years consecutive as County Seat Tournament champions, this is the first year we were Laurel Highlands Conference champions and, of course, we won District 6. I'm very proud of that."
That era came to a conclusion on Tuesday at Hempfield Area High School with a 70-28 PIAA Class A semifinal defeat at the hands of powerful WPIAL champion Lincoln Park. But the Huskies said it did little to diminish everything they experienced to get there.
"It was pretty disappointing. This is not how we wanted the season to end, but you can't let it overshadow the great year we had, so we keep our heads up," Maruca said.
"We're 28-1 right now. Just to get here is an accomplishment in itself. We lost to a good team. It's not like we came in here as the favorite and laid an egg. We were the underdog. We lost, and we didn't play nearly close to our potential," BC junior guard Brandon Martinazzi said.
Madonna, the defensive stopper on the squad, got emotional after the game as he received hugs from his parents and grandfather.
"Every day since I was a freshman, since I enrolled in Bishop Carroll, I put my heart and soul into the basketball program. Every night, whether it was practice or just shooting around, I left it all out there. I've been playing basketball since I was 3 years old. This is the last time I'm going to lace them up," said the 5-foot-8 Madonna, who probably will go to the University Park or Altoona campus of Penn State.
The Huskies entered the game a decided underdog but continued to fight and scrap and dive for loose balls against a team with three starters taller than its tallest player - the 6-6 Lee - with at least two major college prospects and despite falling behind 15-0 to start the game.
In spite of the fact that the odds were against the Huskies advancing to the state finals for the first time, the same kind of huge crowd showed up as has been following them throughout the playoffs.
"If you looked in the stands tonight, it was packed. One whole side was packed with our fans. Current students, past students, alumni, I couldn't be more proud of those people coming back to watch us and supporting us, the whole town, and other neighboring towns like Cresson," Lee said. "It was nice to see that.
"I think it was our style of play. It was very exciting. People got their money's worth when they came to the games. I think it was mostly the kids on the team, the way we present ourselves. Everyone on the team is a very good kid," Lee added.
Carroll won a District 6 championship in 2011 when this year's seniors were freshmen reserves but didn't manage to repeat that performance or win a Laurel Highlands Conference title until this year. Still, last year, the Huskies advanced to the PIAA quarterfinals for just the third time in school history and almost upset Lincoln Park before losing by two. Then they got a round beyond it this year, winning their first 28 games - 23 by double figures.
Carroll managed that with just two starters 6-0 or taller and only two double-digit scorers, Martinazzi and Lee.
"I just think it was the chemistry we had. We were a close-knit group. We played together a long time, There was no selfishness either. I think that really propelled us," Maruca said. "I think it just was our personalities. We're all about the team. I guess you could say it was the luck of the draw that our personalities fit so well. They did from day one. There was no ego on this team."
"All of us are unselfish. We know how to work together," Lee said, "Give the credit to Coach there. He always told us in practice to get the open shot and not to force any shots. We're all good shooters. Why not give it to your teammate?"
Madonna said he felt his team would still find a way to reach the state finals against the heavily-favored Leopards.
"I was very confident. Not overconfidence, cockiness or arrogance, but I was confident. I wanted to come in thinking we could win. You don't study for the test if you are going to fail. I believed in my team. I trusted them," Madonna said. "Tonight just wasn't our night."
Although it seemed likely the run was going to end, the Husky captains never looked at it that way.
"It could have been my last game the first game of district playoffs. Ever since then, it was do or die," Maruca said. "We just had to push it out of our heads and focus on what we had to do."
Madonna admitted he wasn't sure how things would go when he was made a captain in 10th grade.
"It was a lot of pressure," Madonna said, "but I welcomed it, and I honestly think it made me a greater player."
Carroll should be very good again next year. Martinazzi, an all-state selection as a sophomore, will return, and 6-8 Scott Holsinger should be back healthy. Several key reserves on this year's team were underclassmen.
But the leadership the three senior captains provided will be tough to replace. Aliquo didn't want to talk about the future and admitted later he might consider stepping aside because he had such a bond with those players.
"It's tough. They're three of my best friends, and we have leadership," Martinazzi said. "Filling those roles won't be done. Not just one but three, it's unbelievable. They're all about the team. They trust one another. They trust us, and I'm going to miss them.
"I'll do my part. I promise you that much," Martinazzi said.
Lee offered some advice to the returnees.
"Just keep the work ethic and the tradition of Bishop Carroll," Lee said. "Keep going."