The Prodigal Twins: How John and James Hapgood found their way back
On a rainy, blustery Tuesday night, as their teammates and classmates celebrated the San Dieguito Academy Boys Basketball team's CIF Division 3 semifinals win against Grossmont, John and James Hapgood calmly took the scene in.
The twin brothers, who scored a combined 34 points in the 56-44 victory, savor moments like these, because they were so close to not happening.
Once among the most decorated incoming freshman in their class, the Hapgoods had seen their careers take twists and turns that removed them from the spotlight and almost made a return to the court an uncertainty.
But they returned to the court for their senior season, and found a renewed passion for the game, thanks to their new family at San Dieguito Academy, a school that, until Thursday, had not won a boys hoops title since Lyndon Johnson was president.
That passion displayed itself in their stellar performance: John was named Avocado League Player of the Year and James was named to the All-League first team, leading the team to their first outright league championship since 1965, the same year as their last CIF title.
"The season has meant a lot to me because of my teammates," James said. "I love their energy and togetherness. The SDA program is family, it's a second home to be yourself and complete."
John echoed his brother's sentiments.
"Being named league player of the year feels great, and none of it would be possible without my coaches and teammates pushing me every single day," John said. "I just can't thank the people who helped me achieve this enough."
Four years ago, championships, individual awards and college scholarships appeared as givens for the brothers, who were born and raised in Encinitas. They dominated their age group throughout youth basketball and were among the most coveted eighth graders for the private school powers.
Although San Dieguito Academy was the closest school to their home, the boys started their high school careers at La Jolla Country Day, and during their freshman year were key members of the Torreys CIF State Division 3 championship team.
With both brothers set to return, the Torreys were set to be one of the region's top teams.
But John suddenly left the school and transferred to La Costa Canyon, where he would sit out the first half of the season and join the team for league play, becoming the Mavericks sixth man and helping them make a run to the D1 quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, James remained at La Jolla Country Day and helped the team off to a solid start and was the team's unquestioned leader. But he missed the team's final 10 games (the team went 2-8 during that stretch) and opted to transfer to LCC after his sophomore year.
Then, during the 2020-21 season, held last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both brothers opted to not play.
While John said returning to the court was never in doubt, James said he considered giving up the sport.
"I really was not interested from the beginning to the end of my junior year," James said. "I really was kind of in a weird mindset, a low-vibration mindset but that year helped me mentally.
"I came back to hoops because I was at a school I enjoyed playing for and I felt my mind was ready for everything again, from school to hoops," James said.
That school was San Dieguito Academy, an unlikely spot for two high level athletes. The Encinitas school, which doesn't have a football team, is known more for its performing arts and academics than its hardwood triumphs.
But John and James said Head Coach Jason Stewart challenged them to be the best version of themselves on and off the court, and helped them find their passion again.
"SDA as a program has been such a special place to me and has helped me grow on and off the court," John said. "Transitioning back into basketball couldn't have been made easier without the help of Coach Stewart and Coach Willie (Jackson). They both helped guide me back to my love for the game."
Jason Stewart, who played collegiate basketball at the University of Arizona, said it makes him feel good to know how the Hapgoods feel about him and the program.
"I've been knowing them since they were little boys, and it's good to help them grow up into mature young men," Stewart said. "I think it speaks to our program, which is great to hear a testament from elite athletes, I don't know that we always feel that elite athletes in our community can come to SDA and be successful, so that's what it means to me, and it obviously feels good.
"What it means to me is that we are doing the right thing here," Stewart said. "I love having these guys here, it's good seeing them finishing their career this way, and I am hopeful for their future."
Both brothers said with this renewed passion comes renewed aspirations for their future. Both said they want to play college basketball, and both cited their energy and defense as tools the would bring to a college program.
"I would bring my heart, grit and intense play style to a program," John said.
The brothers, who are listed as wings but are the size of most guards, don't have a concrete position on the court, but impact the game with their high energy style of play, their relentless motor on defense, straight-line driving ability on offense and their ability to battle on the boards despite their 6-foot-2 listed height.
Stewart said their height should not deter coaches.
"I think what you get is guys who play above their size," Stewart said. "These guys are elite athletes and I say that with the understanding that at the next level you have to have a certain level of anticipation in your defense and offense in order to move at a speed that allows you to compete at the college level. These guys have intuition about the game that can't be coached."
But for now, the Hapgood twins said they're focused on the last few games of their high school careers, which includes chance to hoist a state title for the second time.
"High school has definitely been a journey so far, but I value all of my experiences," John said. "Returning for my senior year was easy after feeling the want and love for the game return and with a coach and staff ready to embrace me. I'm ready to do what it takes to help bring home the title."