As a sophomore last year on the junior varsity, J. P. Ouellette watched the Royal varsity at practice and shook his head in amazement. Sometimes the players worked hard under Coach Gene Hatton, but other times practice resembled a second-rate circus.
"They would be clowning around the whole time," Ouellette said. "The varsity reminded me of a park and rec team. It was kind of crazy."
It was also awful. Never known as a basketball power--Royal had only two winning seasons since the school opened in 1968--the Highlanders hit bottom last season with a 1-19 record, forcing Hatton to pull down the tent. He resigned last spring and Royal hired its fifth basketball coach since 1980, promoting Joe Malkinson from the junior varsity.
Talk about low expectations. Well-wishers clapped Malkinson on the back, telling him that all he needed to be considered a success this season was two wins.
They are probably ready to canonize him by now. The season is not yet a month old and Royal already has won the consolation championship in two tournaments and boasts a 7-3 record. Only Simi Valley (8-1) has more wins among Valley-area teams.
"They're playing together and with enthusiasm," said Simi Valley Coach Bob Hawking, who watched Royal win the consolation championship of the Simi Valley tournament. "That's something they didn't always have last year."
Royal has vaulted into The Times' Valley poll at No. 9, but the negative image still is difficult to shake.
"We're not taken seriously yet," said Ouellette, a six-foot guard. "I still hear people at school say, 'Hey, you're 1-19.' They think we're a fluke."
Malkinson, a 1970 Royal graduate and former football coach, also is reserving judgment.
"I think there was doubt about how serious the school was about basketball, but people know we are serious now," he said. "I don't think we've established respectability, but we've opened the door. One season doesn't build a program."
Still, Royal has shown definite signs of life. Among the victories are a 71-58 thrashing of Alemany--a Southern Section 5-A Division school--and a 63-62 upset of league rival Westlake, which reached the 4-A final last season.
But Malkinson pointed to a season-opening, 56-54 loss to Santa Clara, a perennial 2-A power, as instrumental in the turnaround.
"Chris Noyes missed a 10-foot jumper at the buzzer or we might have won that game," Malkinson said. "Our good showing was a key for us. It was important to show that we could play with good teams."
Malkinson also believes it is important to minimize the past. The current Highlanders are more familiar with success than failure.
"I had a lot of these kids on the sophomore and junior varsity teams," he said. "These guys are 17-7 in league games and won the the league title as sophomores and were second as JVs. They've had success."
Add Royal: In 10 games, Royal has had seven different leading scorers and only once has a Highlander scored more than 20 points. The team is shooting 48% from the floor and has started impressively despite converting only 60% of its free throws.
John Loder, a 6-0 senior guard, leads the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points. Noyes, a 5-10 senior guard, is averaging 10.1, and senior forward Tony Strickland (6-4), who Malkinson calls the team's most improved player, averages 9.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Ouellette, the first player off the bench, averages 7.8 points and has converted 16 of 41 shots from three-point range. The team's most talented player might be 6-4 sophomore Russell Myers, whom Malkinson is bringing along slowly. In limited playing time, Myers is averaging 8.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.
Hard-nosed defense has been the team's most consistent strength.
"I demand intensity," Malkinson said. "All practices start with defense. We don't touch a basketball for the first 30 minutes."
Last add Royal: After playing in two tournaments the first two weeks of the season, Royal finds itself left out of the holiday action. The Highlanders were dropped from the Ventura tournament in favor of Westlake and Malkinson was unable to secure another berth.
Royal played nonleague games last week against Buena and Calabasas and plays Crespi on Wednesday in its last game before Marmonte League play begins in January.
"We may go to Seattle next year. It's something we're shooting for. We're interested in upgrading the things we do," Malkinson said. "We picked up the Crespi game. It's another 5-A school and should be a test for us."
Battle-weary: Center Brandon Battle has been about the only bright spot for Canoga Park. Battle, a 6-3 sophomore, was selected to the all-tournament team at the Hamilton tournament.
The Hunters' lone victory is a 93-92 overtime win over the Hamilton junior varsity, however. The Hunters (1-6) have been drubbed by Taft, 100-36, Grant, 91-51, and Hamilton, 79-54.
"I don't know when the wins are going to start coming," Coach Joey Nakasone said. "But I'm planning on winning some."