Seeking A Breakthrough — Highlanders (l-r) Travis Fukumoto, Jason Horosny and Michael Mensah are trying to help Granada Hills get to the City Division I title game.


There’s one definitive about the Granada Hills-Poly boys’ basketball semifinal matchup this Friday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m. at the Roybal Learning Center gym in downtown Los Angeles.

A Valley team will be playing for the Los Angeles City Section’s Division I championship on March 7.

Highlanders Coach Don Loperena obviously wants it to be his team. But he is just as interested at which Granada Hills team will show up — the passive group that only plays in spurts and could freeze up in crucial moments, or the aggressive group that is focused and confident.

A 19-12 overall record like the one Granada Hills possesses can suggest such schizophrenia, masking true intention and desire. But it may also camouflage a dangerous foe, one on the verge of reaching its destiny.

Clues to the direction the Highlanders are moving toward may be found in their last two games. There was the stirring victory against West Valley League foe El Camino Real on Feb. 13, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Conquistadors dating back to the 2009-10 season. And then there was the 62-55 victory over Garfield of Los Angeles in the Division I quarterfinals on Feb. 20. That win was particularly gratifying since Garfield, which led by seven to start the fourth quarter, had eliminated Granada Hills in semifinal playoff games in 2012 and 2014.

Nonetheless, Loperena is wary of Poly (16-12) and how his players will react on Friday — and not just because of the usual anxiety all coaches feel before a playoff game.

“They are similar to what we saw in Garfield,” Loperena said. “I came from kids that are wired like that; I coached at Monroe for years. And I’ve explained the difference to [his team] numerous times. When we [Monroe] played Granada Hills, it was easy to fire them up. They had a little chip on their shoulder. They were very, very proud of their basketball — that was huge for them.

“Our guys here — great kids, respectful, but in most cases haven’t had to work as hard as kids from different areas. So that work ethic and drive is something they haven’t been necessarily given as much. And yet our kids can win a championship.”

The Granada Hills players say the needed self-motivation is in place.

“Being a senior it’s a lot different now,” said point guard Travis Fukumoto. “Last year (when Granada Hills lost in the playoffs) I felt like I still had another year. Now I have everything to lose. So I gotta go for it now. And I think [as a team] we’re ready to take that next step. We’re really close right now. It’s easy to play like a team when you feel like you have brothers on the court. You always have their back.”

Forward Jason Horosny, another senior, points out that the Highlanders dealt with injuries early in the season — including himself, as a left foot sprain that caused Horosny to miss the first nine games. But now, he said, the team’s rhythm and cohesiveness has gotten stronger as the season went on.

“When I came back we didn’t have that much chemistry [at first], and as the season progressed we’d win one, lose, one,” Horosny said. “But as our chemistry became better I feel we have won more games. Against El Co, I felt we really clicked as a team, and that showed where we are.”

Even the younger players feel this group of Highlanders are due for a breakthrough.

“That [win over] Garfield, after the loss we had against them last year, showed we were very motivated,” said guard Michael Mensah, a sophomore. And the fact Granada Hills hasn’t won a City boys’ basketball championship since 1987 adds impetus.

“That alone motivates me, how hungry I think our team is for this, how we can get it this year. And if we were to bring [a title] to this school and to keep it going….”

That, again, depends on which Highlanders team shows up to play.