Even though Alemany won a state boys’ basketball championship as recently as 2012 and have remained a consistently respected program, you can get the impression the Warriors don’t mind flying under the proverbial radar.
Maybe it’s because that championship was a Division III title, and now Alemany is a Southern Section Division I-AA team that has been been placed in the section’s Open Division playoffs the past couple of years.
Or it might have something to do with Mission League, which Alemany plays in. Getting through the league — which includes Chaminade High, St. Francis High of La Canada, Notre Dame High and Harvard-Westlake High among others — is like trying to swim with piranhas while covered in ketchup.
But there is a noticeable addendum in the Warriors resume this season — height and width.
Center Fred Odhiambo, a junior, stands 6-11. David Barrett, another center who is also a junior, is listed at 6-10. And 6-5 wide body K.J. Warren, a senior who weighs 245 pounds, became eligible on Monday, Jan. 2, in time for the league opener against Notre Dame.
Alemany could now be bumping its head against the radar, in part because the Warriors are having to change how they play.
“This is the first time we’ve had size in the three years I’ve been here,” said guard D.J. McDonald, 18, a senior, who averages a team-best 19.1 points. “It is a different look. We’re still trying to get used to it, to incorporate our ‘bigs’ like KJ and Fred. They’re a vital asset to our team and we enjoy playing with them.”
Small forward Ernie Sears, 18, a senior, agrees. “Last year we were more of a ‘drive-and-kick’ team, trying to spread other teams out. Now we’re more of an ‘inside’ team than ‘outside.’ But it’s opened up our game, and shows a new dimension about us.”
Sears, who averages 11.1 points, has the kind of quickness and leaping ability that can lead to spectacular plays. But his driving lanes are becoming increasingly clogged up by the ‘bigs.’
He doesn’t care. “It’s a good problem to have,” Sears said, grinning.
Guard Brandon Davis, 18, a junior who —along with McDonald and Sears — is considered one of the “mainstays of the team” by Coach Try Meeks, spoke of the willingness of others to sacrifice parts of their game for the new and bigger picture.
“It’s more a mental change,” said Davis, who averages 11.5 points, “because now instead of looking for lanes to drive, you’re looking for the ‘bigs’ to see where they’re at and then operate around them. Get them in rhythm.”
Coach Tray Meeks is encouraged by what he’s seen so far in the Warriors (12-3, 1-0).
“We’re an athletic team with some skill and some talent,” Meeks said, before Alemany took the court for Monday’s game at Notre Dame. “We just need to trust in the system. And down the stretch, really trust in one another, and in the system. And come to play from the get-go. That’s one thing we’re still learning.”
Meeks put the team through a rugged nonleague schedule, playing 14 games in the Northern California Tipoff Classic, Sierra Canyon Invitational, Lahainaluna (Hawaii) and The Classic at Damien High tournaments.
Early tournaments do more than just get your team ready for league play. As a coach once told me, “you’ve got to decide if you play a lot of hard tournaments where every game is close, or you’re gonna play softer tournaments where every game could be a blowout. You’ve got to decide what’s better — having the team super confident, or very tough.”
Alemany is still sorting that out. The losses to Capital Christian High of Sacramento, Sierra Canyon High, and Centennial High of Corona revealed what can happen if there are gaps in staying focused and unified as a team.
“In those games we lacked a certain thing — mostly defense, because we can score,” Davis said. “Our defense has to remain tight for four quarters.”
That was apparent in the Notre Dame game. The Warriors started slowly, generating a couple of animated timeouts by Meeks, but had built a 27-17 lead by the half. Notre Dame, however, outscored the Warriors 21-13 in the third quarter to pull within a basket.
But the game also showed the difference size can make. Notre Dame (7-5, 0-1) didn’t have any players who could match up in length or girth to Odhiambo or Warren. The two sparked a 17-2 Warriors run to open the quarter, and Alemany won going away, 62-41.
Odhiambo finished with 21 points — equaling his season high — plus 15 rebounds and three blocks. Sears had 12 points, Davis 10 points, and McDonald had six points.
Warren contributed eight points.
“We have to stay together, especially down the stretch,” McDonald would say afterward. “We can’t start doing our own thing; that’s when we gotta come closer together, which means we usually come out with wins.”
The meat grinder of Mission League play continues Friday, Jan. 6, with a home game against Loyola High of Los Angeles. There are 11 more league games after that before the playoffs.
A perfect reason why Meeks tells the Warriors to only concentrate on the game in front of them.
“Our league is always a beast,” the coach said. “We’ve had five state champions in the last five years. It’s grueling. There’s great, great coaching. You know teams are always gonna be prepared. They know your weaknesses and strengths. And the road wins are hard to get.”
So he never wants the Warriors to feel satisfied.
“I’m never in a ‘comfort zone,’” Meeks said. “I always push them because I never want them to get comfortable. We always say that comfort is the enemy of achievement. That’s what I live by, and I coach that way.
“We’re not gonna get far if we get comfortable.”