M. Terry / SFVS

Junior Achievers — Lady Tigers (l-r) Jacqueline Urquidez, Jessica Tomas and Anicia Hidalgo have San Fernando battling Sylmar for the league championship. 

Approximately 25 basketballs are all pounding the San Fernando High gym floor at once, rhythmic dribbling by varsity and junior varsity players at the beginning of their daily practice. But what at a glance could be a mindless warm-up exercise is something more:  a reminder that it’s never too early — or late — in a season to reinforce the proper way to do things.

Ricardo Gutierrez stands alongside the symphony of dribbling, calmly issuing instructions. One of the things Gutierrez wanted to do upon becoming the head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team here is refocus the players on the proper way to do things — or at least how he wanted them done.

No one is faking interest. Why should they? Gutierrez, now in his second season, has San Fernando playing its best basketball in several years.

The Lady Tigers are 17-5 overall and have won their most games since going 17-8 back in 2012-13. They are also in a hotly contested race for the Valley Mission League title with Sylmar; both entered the week with 9-1 records and each has two regular season games remaining. (They split their season series, each team winning on its home floor.)

“I can’t take the credit,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of the girls that are the major pieces of our improvement were already here. But…not to take away from anything [other coaches] did before, but when I got here, me and my assistant (Roy Koh) felt we had to go back to the basics. And we kinda haven’t left it. We’re always going back to basics whether it’s dribbling, shooting, blocking out.”

The Lady Tigers may not be the most obviously talented team in City Section Division II. But they do appreciate the value of hard work and how far it has gotten them so far this season. And they could wind up one of the top four seeds when the division playoff bracket is announced on Saturday, Feb. 11.

Did Gutierrez see it coming?

“Right when I started, I can’t say that I did,” the coach said. “But part of it was, it was completely new to me; it’s my first high school job, though I’ve been coaching for 20 years. I didn’t know what to expect. I came in optimistic, but at the same time I knew the track record here. My first thing was to try to be .500. So I didn’t expect this right away. But after last year” — when San Fernando finished 10-5 after going 4-10 the season before — “I had a feeling I had a special group of girls here.”

The team was quick to embrace both Gutierrez and Koh, sensing both men were honest and straightforward.

“We’ve come a long way from the past two years,” said Jessica Tomas, 17, a junior guard and forward.  “I feel Ricardo and Roy have been a really good help to us. They give us their best support always; they look out for us in very different ways. If we need help, they’ll help us personally. All we have to do is ask. And they’re very responsible coaches.”

Jacqueline Urquidez, 16, a junior, agrees with Tomas. She said the players are committed to the coaches because they feel the coaches are committed to them.

“The coaches we had in the past, they were good coaches,” said Urquidez, who averages 9.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists as a guard. “But ever since Ricardo came in…I see the girls are more determined to win. They feel more motivated when Ricardo or Roy tell them something.”

Still, good fortune is part of a good season. For San Fernando, that good fortune was the return of center Anicia Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, 16, a junior, initially didn’t want to play and left the team before the season started. But after a couple of games — including a loss to Arleta, which also figures to be one of the top four seeds in Division II — she had a change of heart.

“She thought it over, talked with her parents, then came to me saying she wanted to play,” Gutierrez said. “At first I made her practice and not play. We had to make her earn her spot back. But I had to leave it up to her [about wanting to play]. As much as I’d love her to be with us, I wasn’t going to try and convince her. I’m grateful she came back. But it had to come from her.”

Hidalgo, who averages 14.6 points and 9.4 rebounds, said it wasn’t one particular thing that made her quit. But there definitely was one thing that made her want to return.

“I missed being on the court,” said Hidalgo, who had played youth basketball for Gutierrez at Ritchie Valens Recreational Park. “I also missed the girls. It wasn’t a frustration thing. It was my own decision not to play. But seeing them play in the beginning, I wanted to come back. And I appreciate the opportunity to come back.”

Being part of a winning team is “kinda cool,” Hidalgo said. “But it’s not surprising because we did work hard for it. And we took our time to get where we are. So it wasn’t just easy.”

Nothing else now will be easy. That includes not getting tripped up in the final two regular season games to at least own a share of the league title. Or making a deep playoff run that includes roadblocks like Belmont, Cleveland, Hollywood, South Gate, and Animo South Los Angeles besides Arleta in Division II.

But when it comes to playing basketball this season, the Lady Tigers are more than just game.

They’re in the game.