M. Terry / SFVS

Enjoying The Game — Playing winning basketball has given Canoga Park players (l-r) Alex Gomez, Dallin Takairangi, Ulises Rodriguez and Jake Gomez a reason to smile in 2017-18.

Early in the third quarter of their Jan. 26 game against Sylmar, it became obvious this wouldn’t be Canoga Park’s night.

The Hunters looked befuddled by the Spartan’s style of play — a form of “controlled chaos” as Sylmar Coach Bort Escoto likes to frame it — which featured an array of full-court pressure defenses and an offense that fired up the first shot (preferably a ‘three’) available.

Canoga Park sank into a quagmire of bad passes, hurried shots, ill-advised one-on-one (or two or three) dribbling efforts and just simply missed opportunities. As the Spartans got and stayed hot from the outside, their 20-point halftime lead grew beyond 30. Both teams would liberally substitute in the fourth quarter as the Spartans cruised to an 82-50 victory.

The downward trend continued Monday, Jan. 29, when Van Nuys defeated Canoga Park, 68-44.

The good news for the Hunters: this was not business as usual.

At 10-7 overall, Canoga Park is still enjoying a winning basketball season for the first time in ages. The Hunters have also been competitive in the Valley Mission League, where they are currently third. Their only league losses are to Sylmar and Van Nuys. And earlier, on Jan. 8, they handed the defending City Division III champion Wolves their only league defeat.

“That’s when we realized we were doing something,” said guard Alex Gomez, 17, one of eight seniors on the Hunters. “Since that day I feel like we realized what we could do this season.”

The Hunters are determined to end a maddening drought in program. Canoga Park may be the oldest public high school in the west San Fernando Valley, opening in October of 1914, but it has never won a Los Angeles City Section championship in boys’ basketball. The Hunters did play for the City 3A championship in 1983, but lost to Reseda. They also reached the 3A title game in 1996, but lost to Van Nuys.

This season they are in the section’s Division 4. They expect to contend with schools like Locke and New West Charter, both in Los Angeles, and Legacy of Southgate for the City championship. And the Hunters can legitimately believe in the possibility.

“This year has been ups-and-downs but…this group has been fun to play with,” said wing Jake Gomez, 17, a senior (and no relation to Alex). “I expected us to go out and play good this year; we all bought in as a group. From the past years, we didn’t like each other very much. There was a lot of BS…we had some growing up to do. We’ve been together the last four years, we have returning seniors, and we’ve all been experiencing basketball for a long time.

“It’s been a ride.”

They also got an unexpected boost in talent with playmaker guard Dallin Takairangi, 18,  who’s from Brisbane, the capital of Queensland in the Commonwealth of Australia and known for its Koala Bear sanctuary and spectacular Gondwana Rainforest.

Takairangi had first come to the US in 2016, first to play AAU basketball, and then enroll at Calabasas High. But things did not work out for him there — all Takairangi would say was “there were issues” — and he was soon looking for another opportunity.

“I hadn’t known much about the school,” said Takairangi, a senior, when first considering Canoga Park. “When I talked to Coach [Dave] Wilson about it, he told me about a few of the seasons where they have struggled a bit. And they’ve never had a championship in about, what, 100 years? For me coming here, it would be a good challenge and a good experience.”

Wilson, whose background includes working with the NBA Summer Pro League, has been the head coach here since 2007. He has endured two winless seasons (2007-08 and 2010-11) and seven single-digit win seasons in that span. His best year was a 14-14 mark in 2012-13.

He’s also endured occasional administration indifference — until this season, when principal Robert Garcia was able to give him some actual budget money —  student apathy, even racial taunting. But he’s never wanted to leave.

“When I first took the job, I once saw a sign that said ‘[expletive] the (N-word) Coach,’” Wilson said. “But I’m from Ohio. I was taught to stand strong and face adversity. I wasn’t going to run from this. You build a house on a foundation of rock, not sand.

“When I first got here they told me I would not get the kids to do one-third of the things I wanted them to do. But…the word ‘obey’ is powerful. If they do what I tell them, we get along fine. I just need them to trust my words and keep pushing on. And the players have stuck to it.”

The players have included their own chip on their collective shoulders.

“A lot of teams think we’re just a bunch of [scrubs] who can’t play basketball,” said Ulises Rodriguez, 17 a senior. “It’s been like that since I’ve been here. They’ve always doubted us.”

Not this season. Even the opponents that have beaten Canoga Park have come away with a new level of respect for the Hunters.

Probably because of the level of respect they now have for themselves.

“We know now the things we have to do to proceed and take this all the way,” Rodriguez said. “We know now how to win and we all want to win.

“And we want to take this all the way.”