It’s a classic question in sports. Would you trade success during the regular season for success in the playoffs?
For Santa Margarita Catholic, the answer is a slam dunk.
After going winless in the Trinity League, and losing 11 in a row to end the season, the boys’ basketball team has fashioned a playoff run that takes it to Anaheim Arena tonight to play for the Southern Section Division 3AA Championship.
The fifth-seeded Eagles will play second-seeded La Verne Damien, and one thing is certain: Damien (24-6) is not going to be better than many of the other teams that SMCHS has played in one of the nation’s best prep basketball leagues.
The journey included a new coach who stepped away from the college game, a transfer who sat out the first half of the season, the team’s best pure shooter who was injured, and a freshman in the starting lineup.
- Boys' Basketball Southern Section 3AA Championship
- No. 5 Santa Margarita Catholic (16-14) vs. No. 2 La Verne Damien (24-6)
- Anaheim Convention Center Arena
- Game time: 8:15 p.m.
- Tickets $13, $7, $7
- Parking: $12
- Preceding game, 3AAA: No. 1 Tustin (29-2) vs. No. 6 Simi Valley Royal (23-7)
There’s plenty of backstory and adversity for these Eagles, who will try to win their sixth section title. The first five came under the hand of Jerry DeBusk, who retired at the end of last season after 20 years.
Stepping into his place was Jeff Reinert. Tall and balding, he looks like a basketball coach. He has had assistant roles at Brigham Young and Nebraska, Fresno State and Oregon State. He was a head coach at Utah Valley University, where his teams were 179-77.
He had seen Santa Margarita before, scouting Klay Thompson during his sophomore year while an assistat at Oregon State.
And heading into the job with the Eagles, he had heard tales of how good the Trinity League was.
"People say it's the best league in the country," Reinert said. "And you think, how could leagues in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York not be better? But this league is a bear."
Then, like a kid peeling off grades on his report card, Reinert lists the national rankings of Santa Margarita's opponents in the league.
"At one time, Mater Dei was No. 1, St. John Bosco was No. 25, JSerra was 60, Orange Lutheran was 84," he said. "And the best job of coaching was the guy at Servite. It's a bear."
And, he adds, "We're better than our record. You want to play the best."
Santa Margarita is 16-14 overall, including that ominous 11-game losing streak.
But the Eagles benefited from the level of competition and what they had to face.
Klines, a junior transfer from Valley View High in Moreno Valley, sat out per section transfer rules until Jan. 2. His first game was at Servite, whose fans nicknamed "The Asylum" can unnerve the best players. The Eagles dropped that contest, 51-43.
Two of the next three games were Mater Dei and JSerra. After Klines got settled, he changed the dynamic on the team. Over the last 10 games, he has averaged 14.8 points; in his first five games, he averaged 8.6.
"If we win at Servite," Reinert said, "I think it's a completely different story."
As it was, Reinert was unsure if his players believed they could win in the Trinity League, even though on several occasions they were competitive. Or, as Reinert says, "a player away."
That player was Austin Bennett, whose stress fracture kept him out of the lineup after the first JSerra game. Bennett is the team's best pure shooter, the one who stretches a zone defense and helps open the inside for 6-foot-8 junior Joe Furstinger, who averaged 16.9 points and 10.7 rebounds on the season.
Learning to play without Bennett will come in handy against Damien; he took a charge in Santa Margarita's 65-59 upset of top-seeded Lawndale Leuzinger in the semifinals and broke his foot. He's out for the rest of the season, which includes the State Division III tournament beginning next week.
Bennett came off the bench and averaged 7.2 points. That's twice what Colin Ferrier averaged. Somehow, the freshman point guard managed to start—and play steady ball—in the Trinity League. It's a testament to him, and to the youth of the Eagles, who should be even better next year despite the imminent graduation of Bennett and wings Tyler Strauss (10.2 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) and Ryan Merritt (9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds).
"The guys have worked hard, they've had a great attitude," Reinert said. "It's been hard on them, hard on us, hard on the fans, but the kids knew better than me how hard it would be, that they had to keep focused.
"It didn't break us."