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Four Years In The Making PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 28 February 2013 06:11

Kennedy High Has Been Good Enough To Reach A City Section Title Game Before, But This Season The Cougars Finally Got There


Purring On All Cylinders - (l-r) Seniors Dominque Vargas, Isaiah Foster and Alejandro Gonzelez have Kennedy High on the brink of its first City basketball championship. The Golden Cougars face Gardena on Friday, March 1, at Los Angeles Roybal Learning Center.

On Friday night, March 1, the Kennedy High boys' basketball team will walk out on the basketball court of the Los Angeles Roybal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles at 8 p.m., determined to erase several years of frustration in 32 minutes – or longer, if need be.

Kennedy (27-6) is playing Gardena (16-13) for the City Section Division II championship. The Golden Cougars are the top-ranked team in Division II and are the No.1 seed in the 2013 playoffs. They have already powered through Los Angeles Lincoln, Venice and Bell in the first three rounds.

Beating the Panthers, seeded sixth, would give Kennedy its first ever City boys' basketball title. It's a task that seems easier for the Cougars than trying to get past those great Crenshaw teams that previously denied the Cougars a title in 1978 and 1980, Kennedy's other two final appearances.

But if the Cougars have learned anything of late, it's to not take anything for granted. That's been a particularly painful lesson the past three years, as the Cougars were eliminated in the first round or quarterfinals. Each time said deed was done by a team from the Marine League – the same league Gardena plays in.

In 2010, Los Angeles King- Drew blew out Kennedy in the first round by 18 points. In 2011, San Pedro stole a first round game on a three-pointer at the buzzer. Last year the Cougars finally got past the first round, but melted down against Harbor City Narbonne in the second half and lost by 11 in the quarterfinals.

"And now we get Gardena," said Coach Kevin Kanemura. But Kanemura also believes this Kennedy team is ready and able to seize the moment; that his core group of players – including seniors Isaiah Foster, Alejandro Gonzales and Dominique Vargas – have those previous failures burnished into their psyches and have grown from the experience.

"Dom Vargas is a fouryear varsity player. He doesn't have a 'position,' I can put him anywhere," Kanemura said. "Isaiah is a tough football kid; Alejandro is a kid with huge heart and will fight for every loose ball. Not extremely talented, but a lot of heart.

"Besides maturity, there's not one particular thing or reason why it's taken this long for this group to reach [a final]. It just has slowly sunk in with these guys. We've tried to build on everything, every season." The players agree.

"The past years have been rough," said Foster, 17. "I wasn't always a starter on varsity; I came up my sophomore year. And it was then I realized how much 'team' meant. I never understood the goals. But as I kept playing and gelled with the team, I understood what we have to do to get that goal (of winning a championship). "It sucks falling short. To see your dream slip away that easily, that quick, in an instant, is crazy."

The loss to San Pedro continues to torment Gonzalez. The 18-year-old guard relives every moment with agonizing clarity.

"We had gone undefeated in league, and our confidence was high going into the playoffs. We thought it was our year," Gonzalez said. "It got to the fourth quarter, and we had our chances to win the game. But we didn't capitalize…there was 10 seconds left on the clock [in regulation]. I got the ball at the three-point line. I shot it, and I missed.

"So we go into the first overtime. It's neck-and-neck; we throw a deep pass to the other free throw line with two seconds left. Isaiah caught the ball; he was either trying to shoot it or pass, ended up shooting and missing. So we go into the second overtime. We had chances again. We turn over the ball with 10 seconds left.

"We knew we had to get a stop. They had one great shooter, and it was our plan to take him out of the game; he had only one three the whole game. He drives the baseline and [passes the ball] to the corner. It swings to the top, and this other guy hits a 30-foot jumper with 0.5 seconds left. Nothing but net. I just turn around and walked back to my bench. His team was [celebrating] on top of this guy."

He pauses momentarily. "And that moment was the worst moment I've ever felt."

Vargas, 18, said he doesn't forget the playoff losses either. At the same time, his attention is squarely on Friday's game.

"You can't forget about the past, because it can happen at any moment," he said. "But you also have to concentrate on the game itself. You don't want your mind somewhere else, and not focused on the game; it won't help your teammates." Perhaps it took the searing pain of previous playoff eliminations to get the Cougars to this point. To understand and appreciate what it takes to reach a final – and to win it.

"I think we have more drive, more heart, more teammates playing better," Vargas said. Adds Gonzalez, "You don't want to feel that moment when you lose and you're going home, after all the hard work you put into the season. That's the worst. And I'm a senior; I'm not trying to leave this year without winning that ring."

The Cougars say they don't care what Gardena's record is. The fact the Panthers come from the Marine League – and have already beaten other Valley area teams Verdugo Hills, Granada Hills and Sylmar to reach this final – guarantees a memorable contest. Be advised the Cougars aren't just showing up on Friday, happy they've made it this far.

"I think everyone wants to get that ring," Vargas said. "We've talked about it so many times the past four years, but have come up short. I don't think we even think like that (happy to be there). We want to reach our goal. If we don't, the season has failed.

"We want to get that City ring and be the first Kennedy (boys' basketball) team to get a championship."

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 February 2013 06:15