It was supposed to be an easy game. After all, Sylmar had beaten Reseda by 24 points back on Dec. 18 on the Regents’ home floor. Now, this contest on Jan. 29 was in the Spartans’ house. No reason to think that Sylmar wouldn’t continue to be the Valley Mission League’s only unbeaten team.
Except nothing has been going easy for Sylmar this 2015-16 season.
So the expected didn’t happen. Reseda raced to an early 10-point lead in the second quarter, and the Spartans never fully caught up. They wound up losing to the Regents by that 10-point margin, 66-56.
It was Reseda’s sixth win in 20 games.
“Reseda was hot and we didn’t come to play,” noted Spartans Coach Bort Escoto afterward. “We were uninspired …. You could see it coming before the game started.”
Let us remember that the Spartans are back-to-back City Section champions, winning its Division II title in 2014, and Division I title in 2015 (with the caveat that several other top D-I squads moved into the Open Division for the playoffs).
Let us also note that Sylmar, after that upset loss to Reseda, is only a half-game ahead of Van Nuys and Kennedy in the league race. And that the Spartans are still trying to reach the .500 mark; they were 12-14 going into their Feb. 3 rivalry game against San Fernando (results were unavailable at press time).
Escoto, who has won three City Section titles during his 20-years as the Spartans head coach, will never be confused with fire-breathing, high-strung types who motivate players by shrieking and throwing clipboards.
“If I panicked, would it help? You‘re not going to be good if you’re panicky and emotional,” he said.
But that’s not to say Escoto takes losing lightly.
He said he saw a similar, plodding pattern last season, when the Spartans were poking along and then suffered a surprising defeat to Kennedy. But that loss lit the fire in Sylmar that led to 10 straight wins, including the Division I championship game against Granada Hills.
And this team might even be better. “We’re bigger and more athletic,” Escoto said.
“Most of these kids are underclassmen. It has a lot to do with the way the season is going — there’s a lack of experience,” Escoto said. “We don’t have the experience of knowing how to win a close game, and being battle-tested.
“They’re playing more together now than at the beginning of the year. But I don’t think it’s unfair that people are coming for us. It’s the job of the next group of kids to hold up that tradition.”
Escoto is leaning on a Big Three of sorts — Clarence Williams Jr., Dayquan Williams and Jaylen Warmack. Clarence, a senior, and Dayquan, a junior, were on last year’s championship team. Warmack, a junior, didn’t start playing organized ball until high school but is coming along rapidly.
Clarence, who was also a four-year starting quarterback on the football team, would figure to be the one most irked by Sylmar’s up-and-down play since this is his final year. But, like his coach, he’s maintaining a cool outside to whatever passion burns on the inside.
“I don’t feel that bad about the losing of games before league and the playoffs,” he said. “It happened last year, and as time went on we got closer together as a team. When the playoffs came around, we were peaking, and we ran with it. No one could stop us when we got to our high point.”
He’s also practical.
“As a team we’re still young, just two [starting] seniors. Our maturity has to grow these next two weeks if we want to make a run at this title.”
The Reseda loss was frustrating, Clarence said, “but it was a good learning experience. We beat Reseda the first time we played them, and Coach told us ‘don’t think you’ve got this one in the bag.’ But we came out here thinking we had it in the bag. They caught fire and couldn’t be stopped. So that was a good learning experience: don’t take anyone lightly. That’s what we have to do every time we step out on the court.”
Sylmar will have two weeks and four league games left after its game with San Fernando — including return meetings with Kennedy and Van Nuys — to get playoff ready. Because there are multiple division-level teams in the Valley Mission League, it is crucial to Sylmar’s playoff seeding that the Spartans win the league outright.
“I need to see some killer instinct, a team ready to take on all comers in the playoffs,” Escoto said. “I saw it last year even when we were losing some games. I haven’t seen it yet this season.”
Clarence said he’s got it.
“I tell Coach every year before the playoffs, ‘we’re going to win the championship,’” he said. “If you don’t have that mentality going into the playoffs, then you’re already selling yourself short. That’s how I look at basically everything in life. If you have your mind set to it already, it’s bound to happen. If you don’t have that mindset, walking that path where you really don’t know where you want to go, you’re not going to succeed.
“Every year is different — different players, different mentality, different attitude. We’ll see if people are more focused, or if we’re going to lallygag. That’s their choice. And Coach will put the best people in for the job. If people feel they can’t take this game seriously enough, I’m sure at playoff time they won’t be seeing the court.”