(M. Terry/SFVS) Birds Who Play — Poly High trio (l-r) Marques Graham, Romeo Mendoza and Isaiah Gipson hope to lead the Parrots on a deep playoff run in City boys’ basketball.

The Poly High Parrots were in their backcourt, dribbling out the final seconds of a 66-53 victory in boys’ basketball over the Chavez Learning Academies on Monday, Feb. 7, and when the final buzzer sounded the players merely trudged back to their team bench with facial expressions that spoke more of relief that exultation.

It had been a scrappy and, at times, a chippy game against a willing but undermanned opponent whose talent level wasn’t equal to what the Parrots — despite missing two key starters — could collectively put on the floor. And emotions were still running a bit high afterward, as a potential clash during the post-game handshake was averted.

“There are some games you just have to get through,” a slightly weary Alex Pladevega, the Poly head coach, noted afterward with a thin smile.

And the rest of this week would get no easier for Poly, with road games against top-tier level nonleague competition from Birmingham Charter and Taft Charter high schools — games that were added to the Poly schedule to make up for games lost to the pandemic — before the Parrots end their regular season on Friday, Feb. 11, with a home game against Arleta.

But Poly is expected to finish as co-champions of the East Valley League with Grant High. Both teams so far have only one league loss, and it was against one other. (Interestingly, both teams won on the other team’s home court.) Neither is expected to lose any other East Valley games — the Parrots against Arleta while the Lancers will sandwich its final league games this week against Monroe and North Hollywood around a nonleague game against Birmingham.

The season everyone is waiting for — the playoffs — begins next week. And Poly won’t be playing just to “get through” the games. They want to win a City championship.

It’s a goal the Parrots firmly believe is within their wingspan.

“This group is more athletic than in my previous years,” said Pladevega, who has worked with the school’s basketball programs since 2012 and became the boys’ head coach in 2018.

“Before we had a [mantra] of ‘pass first,’ ‘love each other as a brotherhood,’ and we had more shooters. Anyone could shoot the ball, including three-pointers; but this team is more athletic. There are games we might only make a few three-pointers where in other years we would make 8-9 of them. This team is built more on defense and just getting to the basket for as many layups as we can get.”

The Parrots know they are good. They have three strong Alpha talents in team captains Isaiah Gipson and Romeo Mendoza, both seniors, and fellow captain Marques Graham, a junior. Pladevega has surrounded the trio with a strong core of role players willing to do whatever task is needed to get a victory.

When the City pairings are announced on Saturday, Feb. 12, Poly expects to be placed in the Division I bracket where it has played the last two seasons. The competition level may be a tad below the Open Division bracket, which places the section’s top eight teams, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be rugged and exacting.

Poly has two boys’ championships in its history. The Parrots won the 1961 City title over Los Angeles Manuel Arts High, led by the best player in its history — guard Gail Goodrich, who went on to further glory at UCLA and the NBA, including the fabled 1971-72 Lakers team that won a record 33 consecutive games and the team’s first championship in Los Angeles. Poly also won the City Invitational title in 1999 over Los Angeles Jefferson High.

The Parrots of today feel it’s time to hang another banner in the gymnasium.

“We have the ability (to make a playoff run),” said Mendoza, the Parrots leading scorer, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Monday’s victory over Chavez.

“We’re a very athletic group, one of the most athletic groups the school has had the past couple of years. But [the team has struggled at times playing together]. We can be a little inconsistent at times, but when we need to do it and we do it, we can be one of the best teams around.”

Mendoza transferred to Poly from Alemany High two years ago and said the team atmosphere here has enabled him to blossom as a player.

“My first year here was the COVID year (2021). But it really felt like this team was more [of a team] than at the other school I was at,” he said. “Everyone was close and connected through basketball. They really embraced me and made me feel I belonged even though I was a new guy. They let me flourish here, and it’s really been good for me.”

Graham, the team’s second leading scorer, did not play on Monday. And he’s battled injuries before; his sophomore season was lost because of a broken left leg. He doesn’t really count last year because Poly only played 11 games due to the pandemic.

“This year is my first real full season, and it has been good. We have a good team,” Graham said. “Like Romeo says, we do need to play with more intensity at times. Our issue is, we can sometimes play down to the competition.”

Gipson, the team’s third leading scorer, had a scare in the Chavez  game when he tweaked a knee and didn’t play most of the second half. He is a bit wary of the team sustaining any more injuries with the playoffs approaching. It hasn’t been easy to maintain team cohesiveness and continuity on the floor, because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

But Gipson, who was a freshman on the 2018-19 Poly team that went to the City Division III championship game (losing to Los Angeles Roybal), likes what he sees with this collection of players.

“Both teams are great, competitive teams,” said Gipson, comparing the 2018-19 team and the current Poly squad. “I feel this year, this group is more athletic; that other team had played together longer and had a ‘connection’ on the court. We don’t have it yet, but we will get it. Because, honestly, athleticism can take you far, but sometimes you still have to do the fundamentals.”

Depending on what bracket the Parrots find themselves in — first round games in Divisions II, III, IV, and V get underway on Feb. 15, Division I contests begin Feb. 16 and Open Division play starts Feb. 18 — the Parrots are ready to take off and see where they land.

“I would say it’s exciting,” said Gipson about the upcoming postseason. “The experience you get to have, that you go through with the people around you, it’s just really exciting.

“But to win it? It’s a lot of teamwork and playing together. And, also, being healthy — that’s the number one thing.”