SAN DIEGO — You get the idea while talking with Jim Thompson, the boys' basketball coach at Madison High School, that he's been waiting for this particular season for a long, long time.
He hasn't exactly been planning for it, just waiting. Just working hard and never losing sight of the fact that one of these days, everything would finally come together, and Madison High would finally have a powerhouse basketball team.
While talking with Thompson, one of the first things you notice--along with his unabashed enthusiasm for a school nestled behind an AM-PM Mini Market off Clairemont Mesa Drive--is the slight Cajun accent in his voice.
How it got there, he has no idea. Thompson grew up in San Diego and has been at Madison High all the way.
He played on the last Madison team to win 20 games in a season--also the last to win a City Eastern League championship--in 1973.
And he was an assistant at Madison for 10 seasons, learning under the county's all-time winningest coach, John Hannon. Even though Hannon won 385 games in 24 seasons, Madison never did repeat the success it had 15 seasons ago.
Until this year, the year Thompson has been waiting for. Madison High finally won another City Eastern League championship. And it won it in style, going through a tough league schedule undefeated and finishing the regular season 22-2.
The Warhawks, seeded second in the San Diego Section Division II playoffs behind Torrey Pines, won their first-round playoff game over Fallbrook, 63-48, Thursday night. Madison will play host to Escondido at 7:30 tonight in the quarterfinals.
"When this season started, I would have never thought this team could attain the success it has," Thompson said. "But with each passing game, we have gained more and more confidence, and now we all feel that this may finally be our year."
Of course, Escondido tonight and possibly No. 1-ranked Torrey Pines down the road stand in the way of a section championship, but when you haven't been in this position for 15 years, it's difficult not to get excited.
Thompson has an experienced team, led by four seniors--guards Jeff Harper and Wesley Bertelson, forward Andre Mitchell and center Jeff Alexander. Thompson also has an excellent swingman in junior Robby Robinson, an all-county player last year as a sophomore.
All five can score, and all five like to score. When the season started, there was some question whether Thompson would be able to tame his players' enthusiasm for individual play.
Critics say that Thompson hasn't been able to accomplish this. Madison's offense rarely consists of more than a couple of passes. Thompson said earlier this season that he would rather his team shoot quickly, because it was ineffective when it worked the ball too much.
"Last year, there were a lot of games where all I cared about was how many points I had," said Harper, the team's captain. "Now I think all of us realize that we can all score, and it doesn't matter who scores as long as we win."
The Madison offense was described by Bertelson, the guy whose main role is consistency.
"In the first quarter, the idea is to move the ball around to find the guy who's hot," he said. "Then, the rest of the game, the idea is to get the ball to that person."
Thompson says that this is indeed the idea and wonders why others would criticize such a strategy.
"I remember near the beginning of the season, I wanted the kids to learn how to start the offense on one side of the court, move the ball to other side and then back to the original side before they got a shot," Thompson said. "Then I realized that with the athletes we had, we could get a good shot after just a couple of passes. So, I figured, why waste all of that time?
"I think the sign of a good coach is someone who can figure out what's best for his team. And we do best when we get a lot of shots up."
It seems difficult to argue with him. At season's end, Madison did not have a single player among the county's top 25 scorers but had the county's second-best record.
All five starters averaged between 10 and 15 points per game, even though the players may have seemed inconsistent because of Madison's offensive game plan. It was not uncommon, for example, for Alexander to score 25 points one night and 5 the next.
"If you're preparing to play our team, you have to prepare to try and stop everybody," Thompson said. "That's what makes us tough to defeat."
Everything is not perfect. In talking about the players on his team, Thompson gave a hint of a problem when he said it would be best if Robinson wasn't the subject of any more newspaper stories this season.
It seems some of the senior players had become jealous because a junior was stealing some of their thunder.
"It's just that last year and at the beginning of this year, all we ever heard about was that for us to be successful, we had to have Robby," Harper said. "The players know that we do need him, but we feel that we're important, also."
Early in the season, Harper said, the players kept to themselves or with one or two others except during practice, when they were forced together as a group. Robinson says he remembers the team having some ego problems. But he says that after early season losses to Poway and Mt. Carmel, the players got together for a couple of meetings to reconcile their differences.
"I would see coach going crazy sometimes," Robinson said. "We have a team with so much talent, and here were certain individuals upset because they didn't get an article written about them or their picture in the paper.
"There was nothing I could do about that, and I think we all finally realized we had to come together if we were going to reach any of our goals this season, like winning a championship."
Now it seems within reach. The players have stopped bickering, and seem to have a realistic shot at winning a title.
You get the idea that if it is ever going to happen, this might be the season.