SANTA ANA, Calif. — Maintaining the winning tradition at Mater Dei means winning year in and year out. No matter what challenges the season brings, the expectations remain the same. When you've been at it as long as Mater Dei Monarchs Boys Basketball Head Coach Gary McKnight, winning is the expectation, and championships are the expected conclusion.

But this past summer, McKnight, who's had health issues in the past that could have left him compromised faced a less predictable outcome when he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

"I was very fortunate. I had a really good doctor, and he got me on antibiotics and steroids. And it really didn't affect me other than being in my room for 11 straight days," McKnight said. "Kind of drove me nuts." 

Even after recovering from the virus, the uncertainty of whether or not there would even be a basketball season came into focus for McKnight, who has 32 consecutive league titles.

"All year long, you kept saying, 'Guys, I think we're going to play, I think we're going to play,' but down deep, you're not sure. And when it finally came true that we were going to play and put the effort toward it, it was just really exciting to everybody, and especially the seniors," McKnight said.

One of those seniors is 6-foot-8-inch center Wilhelm Breidenbach.

The condensed season has meant more games and fewer practices, but don't let that make you think there's any room for excuses.

"It means a lot, obviously, that we've been successful historically. So there's always a target on our backs. We always have a big job to do each year," Breidenbach said.

And with his team living up to their reputation on the court, McKnight has made strides for himself. He said he was drinking too much Diet Coke. So he made the switch to black iced tea and cleaned up his diet, and since the pandemic began, he's lost 65 pounds.  

"I know all of us have individual struggles, so seeing him step up like that, it really inspires all of us," Breidenbach said.

As they look to add to the more than 1,000 career wins of California's all-time winningest boys basketball team, Mater Dei is happy to have its season back and their Monarch.

"I feel 100% better. I'm back to being 10 lbs. lighter than when I got hired at Mater Dei back in 1983," McKnight said.