When John Gillette became basketball coach at El Monte High School three years ago, he inherited a program in disarray.
The Lions had finished with an abysmal 1-19 record in the 1981-82 season and, with no tall players returning, their prospects were not looking up.
"I can still remember the very first meeting with the kids as they were sitting in the stands in the gym," Gillette recalled. "I remember looking at one little kid in the stands and I said to him, 'You're going out for the varsity?' I couldn't believe it when he said yes."
Little did Gillette suspect that in three years his team, with some of the players he started with, would be playing in the CIF 2-A Division championship game.
He also did not have an inkling that the "little kid" would turn out to be 5-10 point guard Miguel Flores, a three-year starter who averaged 15.3 points a game this season.
Tallest Only 6-2 1/2
With no starter taller than 6-2 1/2 center Felipe Perez, the Lions shocked experts by reaching the CIF finals for the first time since 1957.
Never mind that El Monte lost to top-seeded Santa Clara of Oxnard, 57-36, in the championship game last week.
The Lions had accomplished what nobody thought possible--even optimist Gillette.
"I guess I've always had a lot of faith," Gillette said. "I felt that within three years we could be a league title contender. But a CIF title contender? No way."
How did Gillette turn around the Lions so quickly?
"I don't think I've done anything much different from any coach who wants to turn a program into a winner. It basically comes down to doing it your way, not the other way around."
His way, which emphasizes discipline and fundamentals, was quite a shock at first for some players.
Grades and Showers
"We instituted a few basic rules and practices that we learned at other places we had coached," said Gillette, who insists that his players do not arrive late or miss practice, maintain academic eligibility and shower after practice.
He also discourages seniors from trying out for the varsity for the first time. "If a senior comes out in November now I ask him, 'Where were you two years ago?' To make the team he had better be a good player."
El Monte officials told Gillette not to get his hopes too high at first. "They told me just be patient and don't get discouraged."
Gillette did not become discouraged, slowly but surely molding his team.
In his first year, the Lions finished with a not-so-impressive overall record of 6-14 but were 4-6 in the Mission Valley League, missing a CIF playoff berth by one game.
El Monte improved to 14-12 last season, finished second in league play with a 7-3 record and lost to Santa Clara, 63-46, in the first round of the 2-A playoffs.
With key players returning, including Flores, Lopez and guard Erick Escamilla, Gillette was glistening with optimism before the year, although things did not start well.
After splitting 14 games, Gillette said he noticed a distinct change in his team at the start of the league season. "They felt it was their last chance to win a championship and they were just bound and determined to win," he said.
Gillette was hopeful about the playofss after El Monte won the league title with a 9-1 record, even though Mission Valley teams have not done well in recent years.
"At that time, I thought it depended on the draw sheet," he said. "After I got the sheet, I thought we could sneak into the quarterfinals. I was surprised we drew Artesia because the Suburban League has been a little down like the Mission Valley League the last few years.
Proud of League
"We just wanted to get by that first game just to show people that the Mission Valley League is not a garbage league."
The coach was surprised to see his team defeat Artesia (55-44), Banning (67-63), second-seeded South Pasadena (43-41 in overtime) and Nordhoff (63-56) to reach the finals. El Monte even trailed 22-8 early in the semifinals against Nordhoff.
"After we got to the quarterfinals, I thought 'great.' Now we'll just play it by ear," Gillette said. "There is a lot more pressure sometimes on a team that's favored than a big underdog like us."
Gillette said it was like a dream when his team stepped on the court at Long Beach Arena for the championship game.
"It was the proudest feeling of my coaching career. It turned into a dream season, one that I will never forget."
Size Did Them In
It did not take long for top-seeded Santa Clara to put an end to El Monte's visions of a title. The much taller Saints had an 18-8 lead after the first quarter and led comfortably the rest of the way.
"That's when our size finally got the best of us," Gillette said. "Not to take anything away from anyone, but Santa Clara's basketball program is such that they can compete at a higher level and win. Maybe if we had played a real 2-A-level team instead of Santa Clara, it would have been a better game."
Despite the unhappy ending, Gillette said it was a great season.
"Saturday, after the game, we were disappointed but we were proud," he said. "Losing is just not in our vocabulary, whether it's Santa Clara or the Lakers. But we realized just that we had accomplished more than we thought we would.
"Whoever thought that little El Monte would go that far? We have bigger hearts than we have size."