Boys’ hoops survives losses, makes playoffs

Chronicle Staff

Only two weeks ago, it appeared that the boys’ varsity basketball team had the Mission League title locked up. The Wolverines were undefeated through their first nine games in league, and Loyola, the next best squad, had a 7-2 record.

And then they lost.

“We were like, “Wait, we lost?” Tennessee-bound Renaldo Woolridge ’08 said. “And then we lost again… and again.”

The Wolverines’ three game skid landed them in second place behind Loyola at the season’s conclusion. Without the first place finish in the Mission League, the team finds itself seeded 14th in the 32-team playoff bracket, lower than head coach Greg Hilliard originally hoped. The CIF Southern Section Division I-AA playoffs begin on Friday, with the Wolverines playing against the winner of today’s Westlake-El Segundo wild card matchup in the first round. The Wolverines finished the regular season with an 11-3 league record and 20-7 overall.

The team started league play off on the right foot on Jan. 2. In this 64-53 victory at home against Verbum Dei, Woolridge played like an all-star, exploding for 32 points and 14 rebounds. The game was a sign of things to come, as the Wolverines began league play on a 9-0 streak. During this stretch, younger players Damiene Cain ’11, Austin Kelly ’10 and Erik Swoope ’10 emerged as some of the team’s most productive contributors. Cain, the lone freshman on varsity, has established himself as the team’s premier post-player. He is second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.1 points per game, and leads the team in rebounds with 9.1 per game – just a hairsbreadth above Woolridge’s 9.0 average. The 15 year-old freshman, who stands 6’6”, said his greatest strength is his rebounding ability, but Hilliard credited Cain’s composure as his biggest asset.

“To see a freshman who plays with such poise and almost mistake-free is phenomenal. He’s unflappable,” Hilliard said. “Everyone who’s seen him just wants to see his birth certificate because they think he’s about 27 years old.”

In the Wolverine’s 68-64 victory over league rival Loyola at home Jan.14, Cain had to shoulder the burden offensively while Woolridge struggled to find his shot. Woolridge, who averages 19.7 points per game, was just two for 16 from the field. Cain proved he could lead the team in a pressure situation, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds.

Kelly, a very physical guard, has improved significantly since last season. He is third on the team in scoring, with 8.8 points per game.

When Swoope is healthy, he is one of the team’s top players, Hilliard said. The forward has averaged 6.7 points per game and 7.1 rebounds, but he has seen limited play in recent weeks due to back spasms. In the past month, Swoope has lasted two minutes or less in several games, in addition to sitting out three full games.

“When he went out, it’s when we went into that skid,” Hilliard said. “His presence obviously makes a big difference for us.”

Swoope’s injuries did in fact coincide with the Wolverines’ first shortcoming – a 63-54 loss to Crespi on Jan. 28. Two days later Chaminade upset the team, 64-54, a game in which Swoope did not play.

All of a sudden, the Wolverines were tied with Loyola at 9-2 for first place in the Mission League. In a pivotal game at Loyola on Feb. 1, the Wolverines battled the Cubs for three competitive quarters and held on to a slim two point lead entering the fourth period. The Wolverines fell behind in the fourth quarter and found themselves down 72-65. But in the final minutes of the game, Woolridge proved why he is the Wolverine’s go-to scorer. He scored the team’s next 10 points, including two deep three-pointers to fire up the large crowd of Fanatics in attendance.

“I just got into this mind-set where I felt, ‘I’m going to have to do whatever it takes for us to win,’” Woolridge said of his hot shooting streak.

But it was too little, too late, as Loyola hung on for an 80-76 victory that was decided in the final seconds.

“Renaldo’s had a great year. I think people had such high expectations of him that he’s received a lot of criticism unjustly,” Hilliard said. “I think he’s struggled with the pressure of being “the man,” but he’s also been brilliant at times. We sometimes take for granted those routine double doubles.”

After the three losses, the Wolverines were able to regain some momentum heading into the playoffs. The team defeated St. Francis 80-66 on the road Feb. 4 and trounced Alemany on Senior Night, 62-36, the last game of the regular season.

If the squad can win in the first round on Friday, it will presumably match up against Mater Dei, the nationally ranked No. 2 seed, in the next round.

Although Hilliard calls a victory over a top ranked team in the second round a “tall order” he remains optimistic. “A dream of all of ours is to beat one of those nationally ranked teams that’s getting all that notoriety – going to their place and disappointing their fans… that’s what we want,” he said laughing. “We’re going to try to rock somebody’s world.”