You might want to call them the Junior(’s) Varsity.
The 2014-15 Grant High boys’ basketball team only has four seniors. Its leading players are juniors and sophomores. This should be a team people normally would be talking about next year as a contender.
But it is this year’s team that is playing for the Los Angeles City Section boys’ Division II title on Saturday, March 7, against Hamilton High of Los Angeles, at 11 a.m at Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
This is not simply a precocious amalgamation of talent riding some hot streak or benefiting from outrageous sums of timely luck in their bracket. Instead the Lancers (17-13) are a group that has been grinding through the season, and figured out the best way to play together for this group to be successful.
“I think we’re still making young mistakes,” Lancers Coach Howard Levine said. “We still have our best game in front of us, perhaps. There’s a ceiling, and I don’t think we’ve hit the top of the ceiling yet because of their youth.
“We are getting better every game. at this point, we are increasing our intensity every game. We’re competing a lot harder. And I think that comes with experience and playing a whole bunch of games.”
Levine has been coaching high school basketball for 29 years, both here and at Verdugo Hills, and this season may be one of his best. The molding and shaping — not to mention patience — that has taken place since the season started back in December not only suggests a group reaching its peak at the right time, but one willing to pay the necessary price to be good.
The coach doesn’t want any added credit for what is taking place.
“The best coaching job I’ve ever done was my second year at Verdugo Hills (1985-86),” Levine said. “We were like 7-21. But the team was playing hard. We were in a tough league, a tough situation where we were just building a program. And the kids loved it, had a great time playing. That’s part of what coaching’s all about, too. But every year is unto itself.
“I’ve had to coach this team a little differently because of the youth, and because perhaps of the changing attitudes of young people. There have been some different things we’ve done this year.”
One of those things, Levine said, was to uncomplicate the playbook. It’s made things easier for players like Holloway, a junior who also plays on the Lancers football team, to come in and thrive. Holloway leads Grant in both scoring (13.4) and rebounding (8.5).
“Holloway is our number one player. He’s going pretty good and had a great game against King Drew (in the semifinals),” Levine said. “But he barely knows the game. He’s learning on the job — a football player becoming a basketball player. And he’s learning every moment on the court; sometimes the learning is hard to get through. We’re still at a learning stage, and apply some of these basic lessons of the game.”
For Holloway’s part, the 6-feet-3 forward is enjoying the basketball experience more than he originally thought. “I think I’m better at basketball than football,” he said, adding, “It would mean more [to win a basketball title] because I like basketball more.”
Kai Smith, another junior who Levine entrusted with being the point guard, said he appreciates the “the road, the path” that Grant has had to take in its season-long maturation to get to the final.
“It was about finding each other, building chemistry,” said Smith, who averages 4.7 points and 4.9 assists. He believes the team found a lasting cohesiveness and its sense of purpose after being routed by East Valley League foe Poly, 69-50, back on Feb. 2. The Lancers haven’t lost since, winning seven straight.
“We decided to focus on the bigger thing, getting to a championship game. We had to work harder in practice, take it more serious. And that’s what we did,” Smith said.
Guard Gio Quintero, one of those four seniors, is grateful the younger players didn’t fritter away the 2014-15 season. He wasn’t sure at all how things might go when the team first came together last fall.
“I was a little worried,” he admitted. “We had a couple of transfers I thought would play at the beginning but it didn’t work out for them. So I was a little worried with only four seniors on this team, and the rest are juniors and sophomores. They had a ‘next year’ but I didn’t.”
That being said, Quintero is still “a little surprised” the Lancers are in the championship game. But not too surprised.
“I thought we could get here because we have a lot of heart. We played hard every game, and stayed humble,” he said.
But it’s not about getting to the championship game. The Lancers have done it twice before and are still seeking their first boys’ City basketball championship. The most recent heartache was in 2012, when Grant had a terrible shooting day in losing to Bell in the Division III title game. They were also denied the then 3A championship in 1988, losing to — gulp — Hamilton.
Neither Levine nor the players are dismissive of the Yankees’ overall 12-16 record. Any team that reaches a final is good, no matter what the numbers say.
“I think Hamilton is pretty tough,” Levine said. “Hamilton’s got some talent. They’re deeper than the teams we’ve been playing. I think that we’ve played pretty deep — the eight guys we’ve been playing have all been contributing heavily. The guys coming off the bench are not really ‘bench-warmers’ on this team, they’re virtually starters. And I think that when other teams have gone into second rotations, our second rotation is pretty good.
“But against Hamilton we may not have that advantage. Hamilton’s got a second rotation, Hamilton’s got depth.”
If everything else is equal, will younger Lancers have the hunger to win it all now? Especially knowing most of them can return a wiser, more experienced team next season?
Winning a boys’ basketball title is not an obsession for Levine. “At this point, I’d be really, really happy for these guys … the [championship] experience they could use in other facets of their lives, that’s more important than [winning] at this stage of my life,” he said.
For this group, however, being the first Grant team to be a City basketball champion is not just a narcissistic pursuit.
“It would be a big honor to be part of the first team to win a championship at the school,” Holloway said. “We’re not taking [Hamilton] lightly at all. Overall they are a good team. But we feel ready.”
Adds Quintero, “It would mean a lot to me just knowing we have banner a here, knowing my legacy would stay here, my name and everything. And it would be a big win for Coach, too. It would mean a lot to us.”
Here is the schedule for Los Angeles City Section boys’ and girls’ basketball championship games involving Valley area teams. For a complete list of the finals games, go to www.cif-la.org.
Friday, March 6, Roybal Learning Center (Girls)
Legacy vs. Poly, Division III, 6 p.m.
Saturday, March 7, Cal State University, Dominguez Hills (Boys)
Grant vs. Hamilton, Division II, 11 a.m.
Granada Hills vs. Sylmar, Division I, 3 p.m.