The Crespi High basketball team wasn't supposed to sail through the Del Rey League with a 12-0 record this season. And no one expected the Celts, with just one returning starter, to be 19-4 and ranked No. 1 in The Times' Valley poll.
The doubters, however, didn't count on the blessing of Saint Mel.
Much of Crespi's success can be traced to St. Mel's, a small, Catholic grammar school in Woodland Hills.
It was there that five of the top six players met, developed friendships and honed their basketball skills. If they had gone to public high school, they would be at El Camino Real or Taft.
For the St. Mel's five--Jason Turner, Steve Tanin, Scott Campbell, Steve Yoest, and Tom Morley--and starting guard Pat Knight, who lives in Van Nuys, Crespi was high school. Anywhere else was unthinkable.
The younger brothers of Turner and Morley play on lower-level Crespi teams and Tanin, Campbell and Yoest had older brothers play Crespi basketball.
"I knew I'd be going to Crespi since I was in the fifth grade," Turner said. "There was never any doubt."
Said Tanin: "A long time ago, when we were winning at St. Mel's, we'd joke around and say, 'We're going to do the same thing at Crespi.' "
And they have.
The closeness of the players has helped Coach Paul Muff's system work. The team is run like a Japanese corporation. It's quietly efficient and enormously effective.
Team goals are all that count in Muff's scheme and he's convinced his players of the virtues of the philosophy. No player averages more than 14 points or eight rebounds a game.
"Coach Muff stresses teamwork and unselfishness," Turner said. "I get frustrated sometimes. I'm envious of players who are allowed to take the ball through the lane all the way to the hoop, but if we don't play within the system, we're not going to win."
Turner added that Muff's style is well suited to this season's team.
"We're a funny team," he said. "We're close and we psych ourselves in the locker room before games. Coach Muff isn't much on psyching up. He's intense but quiet. I don't think we'd respond as well to a rah-rah type of coach."
There have been what could be termed family squabbles, however.
"Sure, there is tension between the guys," Muff said. "But there is so much respect. They know one another better than I know them. They'll blow up at each other in practice, then walk out of the gym with one another."
Selecting a most valuable player on the team will be a chore, Muff said. At a recent meeting of Del Rey coaches, he was unable to single out one player.
"It's kind of weird," Muff said. "It's also kind of nice. We have just about a perfect blend."
Yet Crespi was on top when this team was at St. Mel's, still dreaming of standing six feet. The Celts have won four Del Rey League titles in five years, and Muff has a 10-year record at Crespi of 168-74.
There is more going on here than a single group of players jelling during their senior year. This is a vibrant system, a program that breeds consistent success.
Happy endings are a habit at Crespi High, a Catholic, all-boys school of 700. Muff pointed out that academics and athletics can be compatible.
"From the yearly retreat where students and teachers really get to know one another, to the fact that most of the faculty attend our games, Crespi is unique," he said. "Support is all over school and the players are conscious of that. The day after games, two or three teachers will tell a player, 'nice game.' "
Muff, who is also the school's athletic director, said he quickly came to realize his players worked at more than basketball.
"The type of kid we get here is very goal-oriented," Muff said. "Sometimes, I have to stop and tell myself, 'These kids are going to college.' They do homework on the bus coming back from games. It helps me keep perspective and balance. I wonder why a kid is lazy in practice. Well, maybe he's taking the SAT on Saturday."
Muff's style complements self-motivated Crespi players. He doesn't rant and rave at referees or players.
His approach is more like that of a father sitting at the dinner table with a large family. Muff is the type of coach for whom a mother would want her son to play.
"We are family," Muff said. "We let kids know we do things our way from the time they play at the lower levels. But our way isn't making unreal demands. Every kid fits into the system but retains his individual characteristics and personality."
Muff refers constantly to the lower levels. The coaches of Crespi's junior varsity, freshman, B and C teams all are Crespi graduates who played under Muff.
"They identify with Crespi," Muff said. "They care about the kids because people cared for them when they were students."
Crespi teams at each level use the same patterned offense, the same defenses and the same presses. The system increases in complexity at each step up the ladder.
"We feel our kids are more fundamentally sound than any team we play," Muff said. "Our kids are intelligent and are able to do things kids at other schools can't. We use five or six defenses and three different presses.
"We don't have great one-on-one players, so we have to create good shots with sharp passing. Maybe their girlfriends won't notice from the stands, but if a kid isn't a good passer, he won't help us."
There is a cozy consistency about Muff's system. It thrives on stability.