When asked about a defining moment for his 2014-15 boys’ basketball team, Sylmar Coach Bort Escoto said he honestly couldn’t think of one. After all, stuff happens during a season. Players come, they transfer, they become ineligible, they become eligible, they learn how to get along and support each other, they battle doubts through a losing streak, they battle overconfidence during a winning streak. It’s ebb and flow, the natural order of things.
Still, he worked to come up with an answer.
“The only change I saw…was when Clarence Williams came from football,” Escoto said. “We had played seven games and lost most of them. [Then Williams joined the team] and then the team went from the boxer taking hits to the boxer now hitting back. We started the year and did not play hard at all. We couldn’t rebound or stop anybody — a bad combination. But I always preached the same thing; ‘it matters in how we finish. Let’s keep getting better.’ And I kept saying it.”
So now perhaps the defining moment of the Sylmar season came on Feb. 14, the day after the regular season ended and playoff seedings were announced. The Spartans had won the City Section Division II title the year before and were moved up to Division I. And even if the top seven Division I teams had been moved into the City’s newly formed Open Division bracket, Sylmar still found itself the ninth seed in Division I — meaning no home games and, theoretically, a very difficult patch to the championship.
Yet there were the Spartans on Saturday, March 7, joyously celebrating a second straight title after edging Granada Hills, 51-48, at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills. A championship few would have predicted Sylmar (21-13) would win — especially Escoto.
“This one feels better than all of them because this was unexpected,” he said quietly outside the team’s locker room after the game had been over about 40 minutes. “I never saw this coming. I never thought we had a chance in hell to win a title. I didn’t think we would win our league to be honest. I can’t explain it, I can’t give you an answer. It’s almost like the movie “Angels In The Outfield.’ Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is.”
Sylmar’s third championship — joining the 1998 and 2014 teams — made Escoto the first City coach to lead his team to a title in a higher division after winning in a lower division the year before. It clawed its way to this final with nail-biting wins against eighth seed Fremont of Los Angeles, top seed Palisades (in overtime) and fifth seed Washington Prep to meet Granada Hills.
The second seed Highlanders (20-13), who last won a City title in 1987, were also having an inspired playoff run off Garfield of Los Angeles and Poly after an opening round bye. They were also eager for a rematch with Sylmar after losing 82-67 back in December, when key players like Jason Horosny were injured.
It certainly was a more even contest this time as the teams took turns grinding up each other in halfcourt offense rather than simply running n’ gunning up and down the floor. But in the second quarter, Granada Hills blew out to a 27-18 lead and seemed on the verge of taking control until Anthony Zelaya hit a three to cut the deficit to 27-21 at halftime.
The basket relaxed the Spartans and restored their resolve. Williams, who told his teammates they just had to get into the playoffs and they would win the title, said afterward, “we were calm. Coach told us the game isn’t won in the first half, it’s won in the second half. He told us to come out with some intensity and fire because we looked dead out here.”
Added guard Tyler Hooks, “We went into halftime knowing that was the best that they could do. And we weren’t playing good at all.”
The Highlanders, led by Michael Kalu and Michael Mensah, kept a six-point lead in the third quarter until Sylmar finally tied the score at 33-all. In the fourth quarter, Granada Hills pulled ahead again 39-35, but the Spartans had one final key rally left, going on a 12-2 run to get their own six-point lead, 47-41, with less than three minutes to play. Hooks, who scored 10 of his game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter, had a major role in the rally.
Then it got dramatic.
Sylmar was hanging on to a 50-48 lead with 22 seconds to play when Horosny — who scored nine points in the first half but was scoreless in the second half — had a clear look from three-point range. The shot didn’t fall. Williams came out with the rebound and was fouled with 8.6 seconds left. He made one of his two free throws, meaning the Highlanders had one more chance.
Kalu, who scored 13 points to lead Granada Hills got off a three-point shot to tie the game with two seconds left. But it bounced off the side of the rim. Granada Hills was unable to get back to the three-point line and attempt another shot before the clock ran out.
“Our guys got a little antsy under the pressure,” Granada Hills Coach Don Loperena said. “We had some things set up that we’d been working on, but the guys got a little ahead of themselves and it threw the rhythm of the play off.”
Loperena saw another reason for Sylmar’s triumph. “Their edge is that toughness factor. It’s the thing that worried us as a coaching staff the whole time. On the glass, they were there. For every loose ball, they were there. Even with the missed shots we had a chance today. Their toughness was the difference.”
Escoto looked back at the bigger playoff picture and came to the same conclusion.
“We didn’t play well at all. I don’t want to take anything away from them. But we didn’t play well at all, from start to finish. And we toughed it out,” the coach said.
“We did it against Palisades, Fremont, Washington…we never played well. We just got it done.”
That’s a champion by any definition.