Media provided by Ms. Armijos, the 2015 Grace Girl’s Basketball Team before a state tournament game
On Mar. 24, the Italian national team failed to qualify for the World Cup. Despite winning the European Championship (Euros) and holding the longest unbeaten streak in international history, the Azzurri had failed to reach the biggest stage once again.
They did not fall to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal as the whole footballing world anticipated. Instead, North Macedonia, a landlocked Balkan country with no footballing legacy, did the impossible: knocking Italy out of the World Cup qualifiers with a dramatic 92nd minute winner. The Italians cried, mourning yet another World Cup without the Azzurri, while the rest of the football world roared, celebrating the success of the ultimate underdogs.
That same week, miles across the Atlantic, a similar underdog tale unfolded. It was not a footballing phenomenon, but rather a March Madness basketball miracle. St. Peter’s University, an unknown school out of Jersey City, pulled off a set of unprecedented upsets. Despite having never won a tournament game, 15th seed St. Peter’s defeated 2nd seed Kentucky, 7th seed Murray State, and 3rd seed Purdue. After knocking out three basketball powerhouses, they became the lowest seed in history to play in the Elite Eight. They would ultimately lose to runner-ups UNC. Nonetheless, the Peacocks had orchestrated the greatest underdog run in March Madness history.
The stories of the underdogs— the North Macedonians and the Peacocks—are the stories that guide our love for sports. These are the tales that become legends at any level of any sport from the World Cup to Grace basketball.
Seven years before these two chronicles, we had our very own underdog saga at Grace.
In 2015, Grace Girl’s Basketball entered their inaugural season as a varsity squad. The eight-player roster had no seniors and just three subs. Nobody expected them to win.
“No one knew who we were. Everyone thought they would kill us,” shared Coach Illi Armijos, the girls’ coach and Grace’s Athletic Director, in an interview with the Gazette.
Nonetheless, Grace proved themselves as one of the strongest squads in the ACIS league (Athletic Conference of Independent Schools). Game after game, the juniors took down senior-led teams from around the city, eventually winning the league and qualifying for states. From the future Division 1 forward, Ayanna Dublin, to Angelica Rodriguez at point, Grace had talent. Still, everyone underestimated the squad. Here’s where the real story began.
Grace entered the state championship as the 10th seed matched up against a star-studded Riverdale team. Riverdale’s Girls Basketball had already established their legacy on the court. Meanwhile, Coach Armijos’ squad had never played in a state game. With all of the cards stacked against Grace—the game even taking place on Riverdale’s home court—a victory was looking more than unlikely for the Griffins.
“First time ever in a state tournament — my kids have never played in a state tournament. We have no seniors. Everyone’s just kind of shocked,” Coach Armijos described.
“So I’m like, you know what? You have nothing to lose. You have absolutely nothing to lose. And they’re going to come in thinking that they’re just going to walk all over you. The beauty of that is that they’re not going to see what’s going to hit them when you play out of your minds … Adrenaline takes over and everyone is so hyped up with everyone else’s energy.” She continued.
And so the game began. The lead flipped back and forth with Grace holding on to the game until halftime. After a thrilling first half, Riverdale took advantage of Grace’s fatigue and picked up a nine-point lead in the third-quarter.
Desperate for a spark of energy and determination, Coach Armijos called a timeout.
“I want you to give me everything you absolutely have,” she urged the players. “Regardless if we win or lose, it doesn’t even matter. It’s your pride at this point and it’s who you represent. Do it for us. Do it for your family.”
The speech worked. The players locked in, turning the game around in minutes.
“Out of nowhere, we came back and we went on a run. We ended up winning by double-digits, which was insane,” Coach Armijos recalled excitedly.
Reflecting on that game, Coach Armijos confessed, “No one really cares to play you. No one cares. Who’s that? Who are you? When this little team comes out and you build them up and make them believe that they can actually do it. That’s all that. That’s the beauty of sports.”
When asked why we root for underdogs, Coach Armijos admitted, “You want to see a little guy take on a big one and knock them out. It’s like a David and Goliath thing, you know?”
She continued, saying that if you are the favorite, “everyone wants a piece of you.” If you are an underdog, on the other hand, “there’s freedom because there’s no pressure at all.”
Though Grace didn’t win states in 2015, the historical season would cement itself as Grace’s best underdog tale for years to come.
Across these three underdog stories, there is one common lesson. When you have nothing to lose, you have everything to win.