There’s an unusual — and potentially exciting — story being written in Sun Valley.
It’s the story of a magnet school — Sun Valley Magnet High — that began five years ago and shares the campus with the middle school there. The boys’ varsity basketball team is in its third year of existence.
In its first season, the Pioneers didn’t win a game, going 0-for-13. In their second season they managed to win three of 16.
This season has been a big turnaround. Sun Valley Magnet won its first 12 games before losing 45-37 to Lakeview Charter on Monday, Jan. 22. The defeat also knocked them out of sole possession for first place in the City Section’s North Valley Division.
Before Monday, no team had been within 15 points of the Pioneers on the scoreboard. And the loss does not keep them from being a contender for the section’s Division V championship.
The turnaround would be impressive even if this was a virtual all-star coupling of transfers from other schools, or a senior-heavy group that had been together from day one and now matured into a juggernaut.
But, again, this program is in its third varsity season. There is not a senior in sight; the 12-player roster is primarily freshmen and sophomores (along with three juniors).
“I noticed their talent when I wasn’t the (head) coach,” said Chris Cazares, who took over the program in its second season. “As a whole, this group…was willing to learn. There were so many [other] elements from last season — I had some who were ineligible because of grades, some had attitudes, some were playing organized ball for the first time. But now we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
One aspect of the Pioneers’ success is their commitment to playing defense like few schools you’ll see. Sun Valley Magnet plays a swarming, trapping brand of “D,” led by a 2-2-1 full court press, that serves two purposes — speeding up the pace of the game and getting opponents out of their offensive rhythm by forcing bad, hurried passes or ill-advised shots.
And Sun Valley Magnet plays that swallow-you-up, suffocating style from the moment they get off the bus until the moment they get back on to go home.
“I got it from my high school,” said Cazares who played basketball at Kennedy High and graduated in 2012. “[The defensive scheme] got us to play at a high level against taller teams. It gives you a chance to use your speed on the defense.”
It also demands a high level of fitness and unending belief that opposing teams will, at some point, crumble under the relentless pressure.
For new varsity players like Beto Ochoa, who decided to come out for the team and join friends Flavio Torres and Juan Virgen, the conditioning aspect that consisted of both school and beach workouts was a bit of a shock.
“Most of us had to really get in condition to keep up,” Ochoa said. “This [past] summer, and fall, that’s pretty much all we did.”
Well not quite. Cazares also lined up summer and fall league games against bigger and taller teams — primarily in Division I — to not only “make the team tougher” but also learn how to compete against long odds rather than be automatically resigned to failure.
And while Ochoa took a while to be convinced on the value of what Cazares was preaching, Torres and Virgen, both sophomores — and who played on varsity last year — believed the system could work.
“We could see at the end of the season, when we started winning,” Torres said. “And every game we lost last year was close, unlike the first year, which was really bad.”
“We have gotten better together because we always work hard,” added Virgen.
The benefits of better conditioning, some added talent, and some attitude changes are paying large dividends for Sun Valley Magnet. The eligibility issues that sometimes reduced Cazares’ roster last season to six-players are gone. “Grades have been an emphasis,” the coach said. “All 14 players are eligible and have 3.0 and 4.0 GPAs. They’re even doing tutoring.” And the team is of one collective mind and approach. The Pioneers not only want to win their league, they want to have an impact on the upcoming playoffs.
But now they’re also facing adversity. Besides Lakeview, Sun Valley Magnet had to face another league contender, Valor Academy, on Wednesday, Jan. 24 (results were not available at press time). And do so coming off that first loss.
Their record may no longer be an undefeated one. But the Pioneers say they won’t suddenly forget what has brought them this far.
“We can be as good as everyone pushes us to be,” Ochoa said. “The sky’s the limit. We’re all on the same page.
“We have to keep working and keep executing, not only in games but also practice, and keep wanting it. Be hungry. Stay hungry.”