Next Man Up

Next Man Up

Center Mason Hooks '20 gets helped up by his teammates in the Mission League Championship game.

Over the past five years, the boys’ basketball team has lost class after class of high profile talent, with several stars, including two current NCAA Division I players, transferring after short stints with the team. Since winning the CIF Division IV State Championship in 2016, the Wolverines should have been crippled by the loss of key players. In the face of that adversity, however, the squad weathered the storm, coming out the other end qualifying for the 2020 CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs. This year marks the first season the boys’ team has qualified for California’s highest division.

The latest era for this team began in 2016, when the squad went 27-8 on the season, led by first-year program head David Rebibo and freshman phenom shooting guard Cassius Stanley. Despite a loss in the Southern Section Tournament, the Wolverines received an at-large bid to make the state playoffs, winning five straight games to take home a state title for the first time since 1997.

The next season, the team received an influx of talent in the form of incoming varsity freshmen: small forward Johnny Juzang ’19, power forward Terren Frank and Princeton commit and center Mason Hooks ’20. The Wolverines won the 2017 Division 1A Southern Section Championship and made it to the semifinals in the Division II state tournament. The team’s success would be overshadowed, though, by the news that three of the squad’s key contributors, Stanley, Frank and shooting guard L Simpson, all transferred to Sierra Canyon High School. In one fell swoop, the Wolverines lost their definitive star player, in addition to two key contributors. The new-look 2018 team, led by Juzang, fought through those departures to reach back-to-back Division 1 State tournaments. After the 2019 season, however, Juzang announced his reclassification to the class of ’19 and promptly committed to the University of Kentucky.

Despite the loss of talent, this year’s team has surpassed milestone after milestone during a historic season. After unexpectedly losing their star player Juzang, the boys have secured the team’s best overall record in a decade at 24-6, qualified for the Open Division Southern Section semifinals and potentially earned a spot in the Open Division state playoffs. Power forward Trumann Gettings ’21 explained how this historic season was not a surprise for the players, noting that the chemistry that developed this season was unique and palpable.

“[Our success] was definitely expected, with everything we have been through and how hard we have all worked,” Gettings said. “We have all put in the time and I truly believe that everyone on the team loves playing with each other. Last year we were a very solid, well-rounded team, and we knew how to play with each other but I don’t think our chemistry was there. This year we have probably the best chemistry of any team I’ve been on. Playing with most of these guys for three years makes it much easier to know what they’re going to do and how to play off them.”
Rebibo said the Wolverines’ willingness to sacrifice personal opportunity has impacted the games the most.

“[Our defining trait is] selflessness,” Rebibo said. “Every guy is willing to sacrifice for the greater good, for the betterment of the team. They are willing to lay it on the line, and when it’s not their night they accept it. There is not a night that goes by where [Hooks] couldn’t score 30 if he wanted to. He could force and bully his way and do whatever. But he knows when teams are keying on him to find [his] guys and let them go to work. That selflessness is infectious, and it infects our entire team and forces them to be selfless.”

Discussing the former players, the current Wolverines only had positive words about their old teammates, with many expressing how proud they were. The loss of talent seems to have been more than made up for in spirit, however, as the team acknowledges that it was forced to step up as a group.

“I think that [Juzang leaving] almost brought our team closer,” Gettings said. “We no longer were able to just give him the ball and get out of the way. We had to learn to trust each other and rely on everyone on the floor to get the job done.”

Rebibo discussed how the lack of one focal point on offense made way for the team’s depth and improved its work ethic, which he considers to be the team’s biggest strengths this season.

“I think [Juzang] leaving motivated a lot of guys to work harder and do a lot more, and that in turn led to a successful season,” Rebibo said. “With him departing I think guys felt opportunity ahead, and they really worked for it. I think what we’re seeing is a product of their hard work and commitment to getting better and wanting to step up. One of the things that’s made our team incredibly hard to guard is that every night, it can be a different guy. That depth has been a tremendous factor in our success.”

Looking back at this group compared to teams of the past, point guard Spencer Hubbard ’20 found the biggest distinction between the two years to be the team-wide devotion he has seen this year.

“I think the difference is that we have true leadership this year,” Hubbard said. “Everyone really bought into winning. We’re led by not just one, but multiple guys. When there’s more than one leader, every one has the ability to hold themselves accountable and lift each other up when things maybe aren’t going our way. Truthfully, all of our seniors solely are focused on winning, and when that’s the only thing that matters, combined with the skill and talent that everyone on the team has, it’s hard to beat.”

The Wolverines were tough to beat all season, compiling an undefeated 6-0 record in league play, en route to a second consecutive Mission League Championship. Although they lost in the semifinals of the Open Division Southern Section playoffs, they still have the State Championship in their sights. After the team’s loss, Hubbard said that although the team may not have achieved all he’d hoped, the process of getting there was the most important for him.

“It’s felt like all these years have led up and been dedicated to making Open Division and competing at the highest level possible,” Hubbard said. “Even though we only completed part of our goal, for me, all the hard work and preparation that went toward achieving that goal meant more to me than anything. Everyone drops a game, it happens, and that’s something I’ve learned over my career here. We may have lost a game, and it may have been heartbreaking to feel like you’ve failed at something you’ve worked so hard for the past three years, but, in all honesty, we’ve won.”

All of that effort and perseverance will culminate in this year’s State tournament. Placements have not yet been announced, though the Wolverines will either be in Open Division or Division I. Many of the players said they hope to be placed in the tougher Open Division where they could prove their mettle against the stronger competition. Regardless, the fact that the team is here at all is a testament to the strength of these Wolverines.

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