The sight of watching the Van Nuys boys’ basketball tear through an undermanned and overwhelmed Canoga Park squad last week had the same feel of watching a lethal, well-trained pack bum rush a group of fenced-in, huddled sheep.
Van Nuys has pretty much been doing the same thing to the rest of the Valley Mission League. The Wolves, 15-7 overall, entered this week atop the league at 6-0 entering their Jan. 25 home game against Reseda (results were unavailable at press time), meaning they had beaten every team the first round of play. That includes perennial league favorite Sylmar, which had defeated Van Nuys in 16 of the previous 17 games.
If the Wolves do win the league — and do it unbeaten — it gives them a strong case to be the top seed in the City Section Division III playoffs. Sylmar and Kennedy, Division I and Division II schools respectively, are the primary obstacles remaining in Van Nuys’ schedule. Both began the week with two losses in league.
It would complete a tremendous turnaround for Van Nuys under Coach Evan Porter, now in his fourth season. He took over the program midway through the 2013-14 season; that team finished 2-12. Van Nuys has steadily improved since then, reaching the Division III playoff semifinals the last two seasons, a feat the Wolves had not accomplished in more than 19 years.
And this season Van Nuys is not only headed toward its first league title since winning the East Valley back in 2008-09, the Wolves expect to contend for their first City championship since winning the 3A title in 1996.
Porter, who played high school basketball at Westchester High in Los Angeles and JC ball at Saddleback College before injuries curtailed his career, is in his first job as a head basketball coach. He said he rebuilt the program the old-fashioned way — from the ground up.
“After the 2-12 year we went right into training in fundamental basketball,” Porter said. “‘Let’s make layups, let’s play defense, let’s understand basketball concepts.’ Most of the guys were seniors, and they’d had a different coach for every year in high school.”
But it was more than creating good habits on the court that Porter wanted to incorporate. He expected proper off-court behavior too.
“I like to say I’m a transformational coach,” he said. “My goal is to have a positive impact on their lives, teach basketball, teach them the game of life through basketball, and win. So when you’re working with that kind of positive mindset, we have literally built a foundation for every kid in our program — in the classroom and on the court.”
The 2014-15 team was 16-14 overall, and reached the Division III semifinals, losing to Bernstein. The 2015-16 team, with 10 new players, was 15-13 overall and was stopped short of the D-III title game by Robert F. Kennedy High in Los Angeles.
But the Wolves were buying into Porter’s methods and philosophy.
“He’s improved our life skills — being respectful, and getting your homework done,” noted guard Ethan Quiambao, a junior who averages eight points and eight assists. “It was a problem for some students. But I trust his decisions.”
The Wolves also have what every contending team needs: a great scorer. That would be Tyree Winborn, a junior who’s been averaging over 30 points a game, according to the coaching staff.
Winborn showed his promise as a freshman at Arleta High. But at the end of his freshman year he decided to transfer. The transfer was initially blocked by opponents claiming Winborn and his family were “unduly influenced” to leave. Winborn was finally cleared, but not until he’d lost his sophomore season.
He said he, too, learned to trust Porter.
“Coach Porter told me he would do the best he could to get me where I needed to be,” Winborn said. “It was hard watching my team play. I believed my team could do it without me. But it was tough to sit out — I couldn’t even get on the bus with my team. It hurt a lot.”
And after the 2015-16 season, Porter felt he had enough players experienced enough in his system now to elevate them through competition. So he lined up the Wolves against the best competition he could in the spring, summer and fall leagues and team camps.
“That’s one thing (legendary Westchester Coach) Ed Azzam told me: ‘whatever you do in this basketball process as a coach, play people,’” Porter said. “I exposed them to next level competition. So when we came back [to this season and league], it’s not a match for the schedule we played in the spring, summer and fall.”
The Wolves are not long — Anthony Daniels and Matthew Sykes are the tallest players at 6-2 and 6-3, respectively — but they are fast, tenacious and will play hard all four quarters.
“We kept most of our core from last year so I thought we could do this,” Quiambao said. “We’ve kind of learned how to push ourselves through fatigue. And if we lose a game, we’d look at the positive aspects, and improve on the negative aspects.”
Winborn adds the team hasnot gotten caught up in what it’s doing and what can still happen.
“We’ve got to take one game at a time,” he said. “We don’t care about the playoffs and that stuff right now. Our time will come.”