Step 3: Handling winning

Boys basketball’s resilience nearly enough for playoff berth

Cody+Garcia+celebrates+after+leading+the+Rangers+to+a+win+over+South+San+on+Jan.+8.+Garcia%27s+experience+proved+key+in+leading+the+team+to+a+play-in+game.

Jackson Posey

Cody Garcia celebrates after leading the Rangers to a win over South San on Jan. 8. Garcia’s experience proved key in leading the team to a play-in game.

Jackson Posey, Sports Director

The world seemingly falling apart, with Covid and “snowvid” recently reaching the forefront of the collective public consciousness. But while some teams were relatively unaffected by these developments, they proved to be heavy blows to boys basketball.

From the outset, this season was marked by several challenges. Only three players returned from last year’s playoff team, and only one of those (Zayden High) started.

In their stead stood a collection of players from all different backgrounds: of the nine players who earned significant playing time this season, only High, Cody Garcia and Kylen Morton had varsity experience. Others, like Tristan Ortiz and Ben Condra, didn’t play at all last year. And they stood in the shoes of a 2019-20 team that ended a six-season playoff drought.

Despite the adversity, the team pressed on. On Feb. 12, with a single regular-season game to go, the Rangers held sole possession of the 4th seed, with South San and Wagner hot on their tails. But then it snowed.

Everything ground to a halt. Power outages, water shortages and a week’s worth of cancellations enveloped the state. The ice finally melted enough for Wagner and Clemens to play on Friday, Feb. 19 – Wagner won in double-overtime, putting them one win away from clinching a playoff berth – but it was Saturday’s slate of games which sent local basketball fans into a frenzy.

To earn a spot in a play-in game, the Rangers needed to do three things: beat Judson and hope Judson and South San would beat Wagner. And, somehow, it all went according to plan.

In the morning, Judson snuck by Wagner in overtime, 70-68. Then, after lunch, the Rangers completed their season sweep of Judson, 79-70. In the meantime, assistant coach Dylan Lieck’s eyes were glued to an online stream of Wagner’s season finale.

“He was on it, man,” head coach Ike Thornton said of his top assistant. “He was watching the stream, and a couple of times during the game he gave me an update.”

That game went down to the wire, and right when it looked like Wagner had locked up the game, South San sank four consecutive three-pointers to send the game to overtime. In the end, Shane Perales and Jonas Carlisle’s combined 63 points were too much for the Thunderbirds, who were on their last legs after playing their third game (and fourth overtime!) in fewer than 21 hours.

All three Saturday went the Rangers’ way, giving them one last shot at the playoffs. But that night, at Clemens High School, they would be thrown into the fire, in a battle of two teams tied for the fourth spot in District 27-6A.

The Rangers’ defense held their own throughout the game, but they made just four of 19 three-point attempts, and Carlisle nailed enough mid-range shots to give South San a 56-51 victory. After a cold week of waiting, a long day of hoping and an anxious four quarters in a neutral site gym, it was all over.

Security guards ushered fans out of the building, ostensibly to prevent post-game Covid spread, but the move also had a more metaphorical undertone: the season is over. It’s time to move on.

Before the season, Thornton said that he would be “surprised” if his team didn’t earn a playoff berth. But despite a bi-district game never appearing on the Rangers’ schedule, he still sees this season as a success.

“I do [see it as a successful season],” Thornton said, “from the standpoint of, we lost a lot of seniors and a lot of our scoring [from the] previous year … So what we accomplished was really, really good. I’m proud of the guys.”

“We thought Cody would step up for us this year and he did … he had a great year for us. We counted on him to play just about every minute of the game because we didn’t really have another point guard to use. And Morton, he was our glue guy. He did a lot of small things and he scored big [in] some games. And Tristan Ortiz, who didn’t play his junior year because of injury, came up big for us.

“So, yeah, I would say it’s a success, even though the goal is to be in the playoffs and have a chance to play in the state tournament. And we didn’t meet that goal, but I’m pleased with the season.”

For years, Smithson Valley basketball was nothing to write home about. But last year’s talent-laden squad, and the notoriously energetic Bench Mafia, changed that. The team finally became an attraction for students, who packed the stands every week. And though the Bench Mafia dissolved, and the roster turned over, that season’s impacts will resonate for years to come.

Thornton ascribes to the four-stage theory of team-building: competing, winning, handling winning, and championships. Right now, he says, the Rangers are on Step Three.

“It’s coming together,” Thornton said. “Last year we had some monumental wins, and this year we had monumental wins. So the kids in the program are beginning to see that we can be competitive with anybody on the schedule, and that wasn’t always the case.”

Next year, the roster will undergo another round of turnover. High and Tevijon Williams return from the starting lineup, ensuring a formidable 1-2 punch. Gabe Ceballos and Jordan Martinez will look to build on their contributions off the bench. And Brayden Lewis, following Ortiz’s footprints, will likely start at point guard after missing this season with an injury.

It’s a lot of turmoil, but the past two seasons have laid a foundation for Smithson Valley’s basketball program to become a legitimate contender in the multi-sport meat grinder that is District 27-6A.

“I felt like we were pretty energetic and resilient, considering some of the things we went through,” Thornton said. “We lost [Lieck] … and then right before he got back, I was out for 14 days. And then we had different players [out] – Zayden’s absence was huge. [But] we had guys step up and get through that. So I think resilience was our identity this year.”