The Process. The Journey. The Adventure.
You can’t just call a sports season, be it high school, college, pro or other, a “season” anymore. The pursuit of competing and ultimately winning in the 21st Century is being defined more often in terms of some “greater purpose” rather than simply “games.”
It still comes down to one specific goal: Goin’ To The ‘Ship. As in playing for a championship to reward the sweat and sacrifice required for that shot of glory and legacy.
One other thing — every trip is different even if the roadmap looks the same.
Last season Van Nuys finally captured a City Section basketball title for the first time in 21 years by defeating Sotomayor Learning Academy of Los Angeles for the 2017 boys’ Division III championship. The Wolves were then moved into Division II, where the 2017-18 season’s schedule and opposing talent figured to be tougher.
But here is Van Nuys in the boys’ Division II title game, facing King/Drew High of Los Angeles on Friday, March 2, at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.
They’re here not just because of the singular offensive brilliance of senior guard Tyree Winborn, the point guard leadership and defensive tenacity of fellow senior guard Ethan Quiambao, and a restructured core group of role players that include Ray Gibson, Matthew Sykes, Mijuhaim Ali and Josh Updegraph.
No, the Wolves — who won the Valley Mission League by a game over Sylmar and received the third seed in the Division II bracket — also learned in time the nuances and demands this particular season required of them to get back to the championship game.
“In the beginning of this process we thought as a coaching staff that, coming into the fall, there’s got to be a level of maturity and growth that stays with you from last season when you won a championship,” Coach Evan Porter said. “And in the early stages of this season, we didn’t see what we expected to see. We were playing well and happy in the development, but you don’t know what ‘it’ is until you actually do ‘it.’”
It was not some obvious misstep or miscalculation — but Van Nuys just wasn’t “right,” losing six of its first eight games. Consecutive lopsided losses to Los Angeles schools Washington Prep and Loyola on Dec. 7 and Dec. 9 were the catalyst for some soul searching.
“No matter what you think you’re gonna do, [the season] is still a gradual progression,” Porter said. “Each year has to start as ‘Step One.’ Just because you got to where you wanted to [last season], you just don’t stay there. You have to go back, restart and regenerate the process.
“Even if they had been together all four years in high school, ‘Step One’ is still ‘Step One’ when it comes to starting the season and doing what you need to do at that time of the year. You can’t recreate that, no matter what you think. You think you did it once before, but it changes. It comes with different ups-and-downs.”
The players had similar epiphanies.
“The [team] chemistry — it was different than last year,” Winborn said. “We were trying to figure who was going to be our core, and build that great chemistry that we had last year. [The higher division] wasn’t that much of a difference. The teams we played early in the season were difficult, and that helped us a lot, too. It’s become easier for us to understand what we’re supposed to do because of those teams we played.”
“There was this period of time when we were struggling as a team, trying to find ourselves,” added Quiambao. “I guess we weren’t playing as a team. It was kinda surprising because we had some of our pieces from last year. But we fought through it.”
Porter and his coaches saw the team begin to emerge and gel on Dec. 26 against then undefeated defending state Division I champion Bishop Montgomery of Torrance. The score was, again, lopsided — a 94-46 loss — but Porter viewed a level of effort and competitiveness that had been missing earlier.
“We really started clicking, and understanding what it would take to get good wins, and how we needed to play,” he said. “What I remember was the pace, the speed, the understanding it would take to compete with a team like them.
“They got us pretty good, and they should have: they have multiple [college] Division I prospects on the team. But a light came on for us. I saw that our speed and our toughness were there…I saw that what we wanted to do could be done.”
Van Nuys has gone 17-4 since then. By bottling up Garfield High of Los Angeles in the Division II semifinals, 76-59 on Feb. 24, the Wolves on Friday could equal the accomplishments of the Sylmar and Bernstein boys’ title teams that won a championship in one division, and then won the title in a higher division the following year.
The Spartans won Division II in 2014, then became the first City team to win a championship in a higher division the following year when they won the Division I title in 2015. The Dragons won the Division III title in 2015, and the Division II title in 2016.
The Wolves insist the historical aspect of this potential back-to-back title run is not a motivating force. “Our whole year’s focus has been on winning a title, so that doesn’t really matter to us,” Quiambao said. “We just want to win.”
The Golden Eagles (17-15) — who held off Hollywood, 55-54 in the other semifinal — may not seem that impressive if you only go by their record. But they are the bracket’s top seed. And they did beat Carnegie Schools-Riverside, which is playing in the Southern Section’s 4A championship against Rolling Hills Prep of San Pedro on March 2.
“They’re a tall, strong, athletic team,” Porter said of King/Drew. “They’re gonna play hard and they’re gonna have fun. They’ll play their style, we’ll play our style. We’ll see how it goes.”