The formal name is the Vaughn International Studies Academy, a scholastic home to 594 high school students in Pacoima. It is part of the Vaughn Learning Center, a cluster of charter schools for grades K-12 where academic trophies carry more weight than athletic ones. And that won’t change no matter how successful the boys’ and girls’ prep teams may become.
The boys’ basketball team, which has only been playing a varsity schedule since 2007-08, may be enjoying its best season — one that could translate into a championship depending how the upcoming playoffs shake out. The White Tigers are in the City Section’s Division V, which is the for small schools. They are 16-6 overall (going into their Feb. 11 game with undefeated Sherman Oaks CES) and will finish no worse than second in the Valley League.
But they are also in an environment where perspective is as important as points. Television is not banging on Vaughn’s door begging to broadcast games.There are no endless rows of sweatshirts, hats, oversized foam fingers or other “team gear” being sold.
The home gym is snug, bordering on claustrophobic — a perfect place to pack with loud, overbearing fans hoping to rattle and intimidate the opposition. But on this day (Feb. 6) the small crowd, a mixture of students and some parents, watches the game against Valley of Academy of Arts respectfully and somewhat passively. They cheer when the White Tigers make a shot or a good defensive play, but never in an obnoxious or derogatory manner.
The team is not overly tall or blessed with outlandish athleticism, so it plays more above the neck than above the rim. The White Tigers strive for intelligence and selflessness on the court; the defense, even when swarming, is a coordinated effort to fluster and wear down teams. The offense is a matter of trust: everyone willingly shares the ball and takes a shot when open. And everyone pays the price of effort on the defense. It’s a formula for success all coaches say works, but not every team can master.
Coach David Cory has had two other teams that won 17 games in a season. But he admits this could be his best group yet.
“It’s their persistence in not giving up. We had a game against Fulton where we trailed by nine with three minutes to play, and by three with 15 seconds to play. And we won. We had another game where we trailed by 14 with seven minutes to play, and came back and won. As the season has gone on, we’ve put in a mindset that if the game is close we’re gonna win,” Cory said.
“This season, any game that has been within six points we have not lost. I don’t know if its because we can take care of the ball, or shoot well, we just have the mindset we’re not giving up.”
Three players — Ricardo Gonzalez, Lorenzo Grandison and Eric Perez — have spent nearly all their scholastic lives at Vaughn. They all say unequivocally it’s a special place, that the experience of going to a small school has been anything but inhibiting.
“This is the only school I’ve ever been to. I started out in the day care across the street,” said Gonzalez, 17 a senior. “My dad said I could go to school where he lives, in Whittier. I thought about it but I stayed here and never regretted it.”
“I’ve been coming to Vaughn since I was in kindergarten,” said Perez, 15 a sophomore. “It’s a good school for education, and for basketball. It can get me into college and maybe play basketball in college.”
Like Gonzalez, Grandison is 17 and a senior. He is Vaughn’s best player, and arguably would be more widely known if he attended and played for a larger school. But he has been at Vaughn since the first grade and said he never thought of transferring.
“I wouldn’t mind getting my name out there more. But I love being here,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade anything. In the long run I’ll be better off from what I learned here. It helped me prepare for college, I can get a good degree in college, and be better off in life.”
They are all enjoying the 2014-15 season, and feel confident of a playoff run. The seedings are released on Saturday, Feb. 14.
“Right now I think we’re at one of our highest peaks as a basketball team,” Grandison said. “We have a good chance of contending for a championship, and being able to win it, not just going to the playoffs and getting knocked out in the first round.”
But they’re also mindful of the bigger picture, of what happens beyond basketball. The lessons to absorb on and off the court.
That is something Cory learned from none other than John Wooden. Cory had an opportunity to to meet and talk with the fabled UCLA basketball coach in 1999, when Cory was coaching an elementary school team. He came away with some priceless advice.
“He mentioned, talked about supporting the individuals, encouraging them,” Cory recalled. “Know that they would have those times where they fail, but highlight them in their successes.
“And also have a disciplined practice as opposed to just rolling the balls out. That was also shared with me with [former CSUN Coach Bobby] Braswell. I was a manager for him for two years. It’s the understanding of time, and how to run a practice effectively by maximizing your time, having a game plan.”
Discipline. Perspective. In a nurturing, protective environment.
It’s probably true that Vaughn may never develop the kind of big-time high school sports programs you can find at San Fernando, El Camino Real, Alemany or even Sierra Canyon.
And everybody at Vaughn seems fine with that.