‘Monster’ teams may mean toughest contests yet.
By Brandon HENSLEY
The Crescenta Valley High boys’ basketball team did the almost impossible this year, and for its next trick it will have to survive an unbelievably tough playoff bracket.
Such is life in the higher altitude of CIF’s Division 1AA.
The Falcons, who jumped from Division 1A this year, claimed their first Pacific League championship in a decade last week with a 54-47 win over Arcadia, giving them co-ownership with Pasadena High. But Friday night at 7 p.m. at CV will mark the beginning of a new season, one that could end just over an hour after it begins.
The Falcons (20-8, 12-2 in league) will host the Orange Lutheran Lancers (13-14) from the Trinity League, where they went 3-7. But don’t be fooled by that record. Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei plays in that league, and Falcons’ Coach Shawn Zargarian said the rest of those teams are “monsters.”
“If you don’t know basketball, you’d look at their record and say they’re not very good,” he said.
So Zargarian and his staff will have had seven days before tip-off to drill into the players’ heads that their opponent is very good, and very dangerous. Orange will come in with more size than CV, although every team seems to come in bigger than the Falcons.
Zargarian said the key will be to hold the Lancers to one shot on offense, and make them be a half-court team. Point guard Berj Krikorian said they must stand up to Orange’s physicality.
“We’ve been underdog all season,” Zargarian said. “Not many people thought we could win league. We’re okay.”
It didn’t always look like things would be okay. When Nick Springer transferred this year to Maranatha High School, critics gave up thinking CV could win league. Then talented transfer Kevin Dinges left the program after the first league game, a tough win over Glendale. Given that the Falcons were a small team, and that’s when 6’ 6” Eric Patten was on the floor, there were times when they looked overmatched and routinely fell behind in games.
But with patience, composure and the leadership of co-captains Krikorian and guard Eric Bae, the Falcons pulled off nine wins in a row to close the regular season, many of those being nail-biters.
“Our guys need someone to follow, someone to bring a lot of energy to the team, and I think we do that,” said Bae. “Especially when we’re down, they need someone to pick them up.”
Zargarian said both of his captain players aren’t super vocal – in fact, he had a hard time pinning anyone on this team as particularly loud – but both are guys the other players respect and listen to.
“We bring it every practice and we like to take it upon ourselves to make sure everyone is doing the right thing,” Krikorian said.
Krikorian backed up star Cole Currie last year and now as the full-time starter and primary ball-handler, Zargarian thinks that though he might still have room to be better, he’s handled his role well enough.
“He led a team that wasn’t expected to win a league title to a league title as the starting point guard. You have to tip your hat to him,” he said.
The Falcons have tough, rugged players in Connor Van Ginkel and Jimmy Smiley, and a junior varsity call-up in Arin Ovanessian who basically does, and succeeds, in anything the team needs him to do.
There’s also Arin Pezeshkian whose rainbow jump shots – which were his main reason for getting regular playing time – haven’t had the same arc that they did last year due to knee problems. But Zargarian spoke a few weeks ago about how proud he was of Pezeshkian’s ability to turn other things into a positive, like playing swarming defense on the other team’s best player. He did so against Muir in the teams’ second matchup when Pezeshkian’s defense on Dejon Williams on the game’s final possession allowed CV to walk away with a 49-47 victory.
And of course, if you’ve been watching all year, there’s Patten, who averaged 18.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in league.
He was injured most of last year when the Falcons went 23-9 and made a second straight appearance in the CIF Division 1A semifinals. He was kept out of the rotation when he was healthy because the team was rolling; what was Zargarian supposed to do?
“Yeah I’m not used to it,” Patten said about being the main man this year. “I felt like I could have been more of a contributor the last two years but I don’t like thinking about what I could have done. It’s a lot of fun to be a big guy on the team.”
Patten said he feels like he gets beat up too much and complained at first, adding, “By the end of the year I let it go. You can’t get mad at the refs.”
If he has found some newfound Zen, maybe so has Zargarian. Watching him on the sidelines this year is almost like watching a new coach. There’s been less yelling, more high-fives and smiles because that’s what this team responds to.
Last fall before the season started, his team didn’t look like a winner. One of the things Zargarian quickly figured out was screaming wasn’t going to accomplish anything. The guys didn’t respond to that, but the effort was always there, and a coach can’t ever get mad at his team if that’s the case.
“It made it easier to coach,” he said. “No one was giving you 80%. Everyone was giving you everything in their body.”
“If you watch us practice we’re having a lot of fun,” Krikorian said. “Everyone’s laughing, joking around and we’re still going hard.”
They’ll need all of that and possibly more to get through even a couple of games this playoff season. If the Falcons win Friday, they’ll most likely play top-seeded Long Beach Poly next week. Bae said the challenge is welcome.
“You can’t win CIF without beating the best teams, right?”