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Fighting Chance

Highland Halts Internal Skirmishes and Battles Into Quarterfinals

February 23, 2001|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALMDALE — The bus was dark and silent, matching the mood of the Highland High boys' basketball team and its coach.

Highland had just lost to a school one-third its size, falling to 2-7 and fading because of back-biting and sniping.

Players committed foolish errors in losing to Oak Park--fighting for shots and angling for better statistics at the expense of a victory--and all but forced Coach Jeff Smith to the back of the somber bus.

The first-year coach gathered his players and floated a risky proposition: If they lost their next game, he would allow them to take a vote on whether he should resign.

He would leave peacefully, he said, never quite knowing why his methods seemed to be more madness than magic, and why his teachings and techniques had failed to register with his players.

But there was never a vote.

Giving Smith an on-court vote of confidence, Highland won its next game. And seven of the next nine.

The incessant jabbering at practice stopped. Players began to pay closer attention to team, not individual, performance. Complaints about playing time and minimal scoring opportunities were nudged aside.

There were even signs of brotherly love.

Brothers Gabe and Mike Stevenson, top-notch players who barked at each other on several occasions because of shot selection, made up.

The coach stuck out his rookie neck. The players responded.

"We apologized for the way we acted," Gabe said. "Players had been waving him off at practice. Everybody wanted the ball in their hands. Everybody wanted to be the star and live up to their dream. The team wasn't a team."

Now, Highland is a team with a dream.

The Bulldogs have worked their way through the Southern Section Division I-AAA playoffs, advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

After a nail-biting victory over Long Beach Jordan and a relatively easy time against Arroyo Grande, the Bulldogs (14-13) host No. 4-seeded Ontario (21-5) tonight at 7:30.

"It's tough to fathom," Smith said. "It's something I didn't expect. We had a lot of tension early in the season, but they aren't worried about playing time or about who gets the shots. I wish we could have played like this all year long. It's truly amazing."

The beginning of the season was anything but graceful.

Gabe Stevenson, a senior point guard who averages 19.7 points, and his brother, a junior shooting guard who averages 13.8, couldn't agree on who should score more.

"I didn't like how he sometimes shot more than 10 threes a game," Mike said. "I was mad I didn't shoot a lot, period."

Gabe tried to make peace, with little success.

"Our tension wasn't really serious, but I'd tell him a few things on the court and he'd disagree with me," Gabe said. "I didn't poison his food or anything.

"I knew he was rushing a lot of shots because he wanted to prove to people how his game was and how good of a player he is. I told him to let the game come to him."

When the squabbling ended, the Bulldogs started strong in the Golden League but lost three of their final four games and finished 5-5 in league play after starter Mario Realzola was declared academically ineligible.

With the team struggling to account for Realzola's 14 points per game, another serious sit-down took place.

The offense was altered, with an emphasis on one-on-one isolation rather than movement-based sets.

The defense was tinkered with as well, the Bulldogs junking their man-to-man for a 2-3 zone to halt troubles they experienced with pick-and-rolls and high screens.

"I really wanted to change things and slow down the style of basketball," said Smith, who entered the season with visions of a fast-break offense and full-court pressure defense. "I figure you go in with a game plan and if it's not working, you have to adjust it. I've never had a problem with that."

Opponents are now the ones with problems.

Against Jordan, Highland played stellar defense and pulled off a stunning 63-61 victory on Gabe Stevenson's running jump shot with three seconds left.

Against Arroyo Grande, the Bulldogs were steady, outscoring the Eagles in three of four quarters for a 58-46 victory.

"The Jordan win was definitely the biggest one we've ever had," Smith said.

"That's what everyone's been telling me. Then to knock off a team that was 25-2 was probably the biggest back-to-back wins in school history."

Based on what the Bulldogs have been through, hardly anything fazes them.

"They can be Dominguez, Mater Dei, we don't care," Gabe Stevenson said.

"A lot of people doubted us and a lot of people still doubt us. We don't doubt ourselves. We're just going to play hard."

*

* Oak Park's Jason Adams shines, D18

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