The 2014-15 prep sports year is over. Kaput. A wrap. And, as always, what an interesting year it was.
Sometimes it’s hard, as an observer who favors “The Big Picture,” to watch the growing divide between the facilities and opportunities offered by public and private schools. That prep sports’ continued spiral into being more of a “money game,” instead of being a means to inspire performance and develop character in youth, can keep folks like me stuck in its past and squeamish about its future.
Fortunately there are still moments in time that remind us how enthralling sports can be when it works.
Three Valley teams — Monroe football, Poly girls’ basketball and Sylmar boys’ basketball — and their seasons will stay with me longer after the 2014-15 sports year has turned to dust and patchy memories.
They will also stay deep in the hearts and mental scrapbooks of their coaches: Bort Escoto of Sylmar, Tremeka Batiste of Poly, and Don Senegal of Monroe. Of the three, only Escoto was fortunate enough to win it all. But each coach got something out of, and something from, their team that left a lasting imprint that won’t be erased no matter what else occurs in their coaching lifespans.
Sylmar Boys’ Basketball
Escoto has been coaching at Sylmar for 29 years. When you’ve been around that long something good should happen. Escoto has won three City Section championships, in 1998 (3A), 2014 (Division II) and this past March (Division I). His third title also made him the first City coach to win a title in a higher division after winning a lower division championship the year before.
It’s not the historical footnote Escoto will remember as much as how this group of Spartans, 22-14 overall, managed to round into championship form. It was not evident early, especially since the big men from the 2014 title team, Devenir Duruisseau and Malcolm Wadlow, had graduated.
“You have to figure what kind of group [the 2014-15 team] is, and it takes awhile to figure that out,” Escoto said. “The result was we were losing games early. I did not think [the team] had a championship pedigree.”
But three things happened, Escoto said.
The team began playing selfish-free basketball. Clarence Williams, who was the quarterback on the football team, joined the basketball team when the football season ended in December and brought an element of defensive toughness that had been missing.
And there was the Tyler Hooks confrontation.
The senior guard was underperforming in Escoto’s eyes, so much so that Escoto benched him. A day or so after the demotion, Hooks’ father came to the gym to speak with Escoto.
There are infinite examples of meddling parents strewn all over the sporting landscape, many convinced they have the next Kobe or LeBron, all too eager to administer verbal beatdowns or threats of transferring to manipulate playing time. Escoto didn’t know what to expect from Hooks’ father. But he got a wonderful surprise.
“He said ‘even if he don’t play, he will be at every practice and every game. You have my support, 100 percent,’” Escoto said. “Instead of blaming me, he blamed his son. He said, ‘if my son is not playing hard, don’t play him.’”
Escoto tried again to reach Hooks. This time the senior listened, increased his effort, and raised the level of his game. “At times he was unguardable,” Escoto said. Hooks’ biggest moment came in the Division I championship game against Granada Hills, when he scored 10 of his game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter as the Spartans rallied for a 51-48 victory.
“Everybody said this year I showed more emotion,” Escoto said. “When we won the year before I wasn’t excited. The year before I knew we would win.
“This year was a total complete surprise, it was a movie. Sometimes for kids, the light just comes on. I tell everybody this was the best high school season I ever had, because everything was so unexpected.”
Poly Girls’ Basketball
It took until the end of the school year for Batiste to take the runner-up plaque her team received in the City Division III championship game out of her car and look at it.
“I didn’t want it. It was not what we were playing for,” the coach said.
But enough time has passed for Batiste to revisit and re-evaluate her feelings about the 2014-15 season.
This was a special group of players, she said. They were a small team — seven of the 11 players on the roster stood 5-6 or less — but they won 25 games overall, were East Valley League champs and earned the top seed in the City Division III playoffs. So when the Parrots fell to Legacy of South Gate in the title game, Batiste personally took it hard.
“(Getting to the final was) an accomplishment. But I couldn’t appreciate it for awhile,” Batiste said. “But as time has passed…[I realized] we were one of two teams that made it. And I have to appreciate that. After all the years I’ve been coaching and I know how hard it is to get there, I have to appreciate that. I do feel better about it.”
Batiste also realized she may have inadvertently made things harder on her team in that game.
“The other team played like themselves, like young people who had nothing to lose,” Batiste said. “They didn’t seem to have the same pressure on them and that was how they played — that it was just a game. My girls, and I take the blame for this, they they had to prove why we were the No.1 seed, and all the weight was on their back. I should have lightened that load.”
The introspection continued. Batiste also believes she was too hard on senior guard Isabella Lopez, who missed chunks of the season with a bad ankle but got into enough shape to play in the playoffs. Lopez didn’t play that well against Legacy, and the coach admitted to subjecting the senior to some unwarranted frustration immediately afterward.
“Now that I think about it, she was coming off a really bad injury, and had fought her way back on the court,” Batiste said. “Yes, there was hesitation because she didn’t want to feel that pain again. And I did not take that into consideration at that time.
“I had torn ligaments before and knew how scary it was to get back out. But I wanted them to do so well, so badly, I didn’t think about that. I should have talked to her a little more and I didn’t. I feel bad. there are no hard feelings; at graduation we cried. But at the time I didn’t consider it. I should have a better understanding.”
She will next time. And Batiste firmly believes there will be a next time. But it won’t be for this “special group” of players.
Batiste won’t forget that even when she finally forgives herself.
Senegal also had a special group. The bulk of the team had been together three years. The first two were brutal, the Vikings winning only four of 21 games. But Senegal kept preaching patience, that this team was building a foundation for future teams, that the 2014 season would bear delicious fruit.
“I was hoping we could win seven games and reach the second round of the playoffs. That would have represented success for where we are as a program,” Senegal said.
His team would surpass those expectations, going 10-4 overall, and reaching the City Division III final. It was the football team’s first appearance in a title game since 1971. “Fortunately our team had other plans, they didn’t settle for my way,” the coach said.
Even losing the title game to Los Angeles High, 28-14, couldn’t rob Senegal or the Vikings of good feelings for the season. As much as he wanted to win the championship, Senegal remarked that the 22-19 semifinal win against Bernstein of Hollywood was very rewarding.
“One of the highlights of my career,” he said. “They had beaten us three times and were touted as the better team, the higher seed. ESPN was following them for a story, and me and their coach (Masaki Matsumoto) were great friends. They were the chosen team, and for us to go there into that situation and play like we did, you just shake your head and go ‘wow.’”
What Senegal will remember forever is how this Vikings team pretty much maxed its potential, “the heart and desire” they showed every game. And how senior quarterback Luis Dorame had survived the early lean years, blossoming into a terrific competitor and leader.
“We were excited to see he got the success he deserved,” Senegal said “He didn’t speak much, but did it with his actions. And the other kids fell in line.
“He is the one who will come back to show me his PH.d. He is that kid.”
Now Senegal and staff will try and build on the 2014 success that got the school and neighboring community excited about its football team again. The coach doesn’t intend to squander their legacy.
“They appreciate how far they got,” he said “You could see them light up when they got their [championship game] medals. I told them appreciate the moment they are in, being the second Monroe football team to get a championship game.
“This was the kind of group that, as a coach you pray to have. And everything else that follows has to live up to this group.”