Hoop dreams

Boys basketball looks to earn back-to-back postseason berths for first time since 1990s

Zayden+High+pulls+up+for+a+jump+shot.+High%2C+a+sophomore%2C+has+averaged+15.6+points+per+game+this+season.

Dylan McGinnis

Zayden High pulls up for a jump shot. High, a sophomore, has averaged 15.6 points per game this season.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

Some high schools are known as “football schools” – institutions that cater to the gridiron above all other sports. Smithson Valley has, for better or worse, earned that moniker. And yet, for those watching closely, plenty of other teams are excelling in their own right.

Among that group is boys basketball. It’s a program that’s only earned consecutive playoff berths once (1996-97 through 1998-99) since at least 1990, per The Athletics Department. But last season’s playoff berth was a huge step towards relevancy.

In the past decade, boys basketball won over 50 percent of its district games just once: last season, they finished 20-13, including 9-5 in district play. That run ended in the first round against a stout Austin Anderson team, which eventually advanced to the regional semifinals.

But one must squint to see many resemblances between that team and the team taking the court this season. Record-breaking guard Austin Kenwisher and his splash brother Owen Woodard are gone, as are fellow starters Armel Talla and Devante Mount. 

Further departures left sophomore forward Zayden High and senior point guard Cody Garcia as the only returning rotation members. Senior wing Tristan Ortiz is making his varsity debut after an injury cost him his entire junior year, and senior guard Kylen Morton figures to be a high-effort glue guy on the perimeter, but the list of returning players stops there.

“This year’s team is pretty interesting,” head coach Ike Thornton said. “Not a lot of experience. Zayden is the most experienced out of all the players, and he’s just a sophomore … We’ve been relying on about seven guys [because] we lost so many seniors last year.

“But we’ve [played] surprisingly well so far this year. I’m pleased with the way we [have] played. Of course we can definitely get better, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start.”

Part of that early success came against Cornerstone, a private school which perennially boasts some of the biggest names in San Antonio sports. Four Rangers finished in double figures, but the coup de grace came with just seconds to play. Down one with the clock winding down, Garcia drove towards the baseline and hit a clutch, fadeaway jumper just before the buzzer sounded.

“Cody has been huge for us this year,” Thornton said. “We were counting on him for leadership and to run the team as a point guard. And he’s not let us down in that area this year. He’s really stepped up … He’s stepping up in big moments and making big plays for us. He was instrumental in getting us going against Churchill as well, which was another [come] from behind victory.”

Garcia and Ortiz form a strong 1-2 punch on the perimeter, forcing opponents to respect the shot and the drive. Neither are physically overwhelming, but their skill and mentality drain opposing defenses.

“[Ortiz is] really aggressive,” Thornton said. “We use the term, [what] we would call in basketball a ‘killer,’ somebody who’s in attack mode. And he’s been that for us.”

But the focal point of the offense, and really the team as a whole, is High. The 6 foot 6 inch forward was named to VYPE’s 2020 Preseason All-City Team, and voted by fans as VYPE San Antonio’s Preseason Player of the Year

The team’s sole returning starter got off to a bit of a slow start after a stress fracture in his back cost him the team’s first four games. But he quickly got up to speed, and finished the preseason slate with a flourish; High dropped a career-high 27 points in a 68-62 win over Dripping Springs on Dec. 22.

“He’s a guy that can do everything for us,” Thornton said of the sophomore forward. “He can pass, well, he can shoot, and he can get points in the paint and rebound … He’s a legitimate, big-time player.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, for a sophomore to command the respect of a locker room. But High, the team’s de facto elder statesman, is ready to step into a leadership role.

““I’m gonna have to lead the guys and I’m gonna have to work hard so they can follow behind me,” High said in a Ranger Recruiting feature. “And … it’s not weird [that I’m leading as a sophomore], because I know what it takes to be a leader, and I know how to get all the guys on the same level.”

Projecting this district is a crapshoot at best. New Braunfels (12-1) hasn’t put together a district record above .500 since 2007-08, but they’re on a scorching six-game winning steak – albeit against less-than-threatening competition. Thanks to junior guard Shane Perales’ incredible scoring (23.9 points per game), South San (10-1) has proven to be a dangerous opponent in its own right. And Clemens (9-4) is making a push to return to the playoffs after missing out on the postseason for just the second time in the last decade.

Meanwhile, Judson ISD’s finest have followed up state-level success with mixed results.

Wagner (2-6) looked like the team to beat in 27-6A after making the Class 5A state finals last season (the championship game was cancelled due to COVID-19). The Thunderbirds should’ve been led by stud guards JaSean Jackson (19.5 points per game) and Austin Nunez, a four-star transfer from Cornerstone. But Nunez has been unavailable, and Wagner’s inexperienced roster has struggled out of the gate against Class 6A’s stiffer competition.

Judson (10-2) hasn’t experienced that type of difficulty, though, as junior guard Anariss Brandon (20.6 points per game) has taken a heavier scoring load to help replace Mike Chandler II’s production. Senior forward Davion Wilson returns as well, and senior guard Isaiah Washington has emerged as a legitimate No. 2 option on offense.

Steele (6-5) and East Central (4-7) both earned playoff berths last season, but fell victim enormous graduation numbers among their respective rotations. Neither team possesses much continuity on the court, but both have the talent and culture to mature and threaten playoff berths as the season progresses.

And that brings the wheel back around to Smithson Valley (6-3). Led by a budding star in High and buttressed by the dynamic playmaking of Garcia and Ortiz, the team certainly has a high floor. Pair that with Morton’s pesky perimeter exploits, Ben Condra’s inside-outside game and Tevijon Williams’ heat-seeking defense, this team has a real chance to compete.

However, it is an inexperienced team that has played the second-fewest games (nine) among District 27-6A teams this season. That could be a recipe for disaster, but this squad has gelled quicker than expected.

“We don’t shoot as well from the outside as we did last year, but this team is a pretty cohesive unit, and we move the ball pretty good and find a way to make it happen,” Thornton said. “Different guys step up every game … There’s nothing really that [specifically] stands out about the new guys, it’s just, we play together. We play together and different guys step up.”

A variety of players willing to fill in the gaps is an immensely valuable trait for a young team going through growing pains. And that cohesion is an important factor as the team moves away from the “Bench Mafia,” a cultural phenomenon that made its mark on last year’s team.

“We don’t have the same energy from the bench, but I think this unit is more cohesive together as a group than last year’s team,” Thornton said. “We don’t have the Bench Mafia, which consisted of guys who didn’t play, but constantly cheered their teammates on. The guys we have this year probably aren’t as vocal as that group, but their heart[s are] with the team, together. There’s no divisiveness.”

Even without the Bench Mafia cheering them on, this year’s squad figures to have a legitimate shot at doing something no boys basketball team has pulled off this millennium: making the postseason in back-to-back seasons.

“Our district is wide open this year,” Thornton said. “All the teams are pretty level. Pretty even. I think New Braunfels probably is playing better than everybody right now, but we have an opportunity to finish definitely in the top four and possibly at the top of the district.

“I wouldn’t say [missing the playoffs would be] a disappointment, but I would be surprised if we didn’t. But it’s gonna take some effort from us to make that happen. We gotta definitely show up every game and have our game faces on, but I would say I expect us to make the playoffs.”

That quest begins at 2:00 p.m. Wednesday at Wagner, as the Rangers look to kick off district play with a victory. Their home slate begins at 2:00 p.m. Saturday against New Braunfels; that game will be streamed live on Rangers Network.