Westchester High Coach Ed Azzam addresses his team during practice. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
There's no Little League-like rule in high school basketball requiring every player on a team to make an appearance, so would someone explain why Coach Ed Azzam of 11-time City Section champion Westchester keeps using as many as 13 players in the first half of playoff games?
Substitutions are made in waves every four or five minutes, a five-in-and-five-out pattern that would make any ice hockey fan smile. (It's called a massive line change in the NHL).
Several rival coaches earlier this season were shaking their heads in bemusement while wondering if using so many players might hurt continuity and prevent the Comets from reaching their potential.
But Azzam, in his 34th season, apparently still knows something about basketball. The Comets (27-6) are set to play Woodland Hills El Camino Real (28-2) on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the Division I championship game.
Azzam is sticking with his let-them-play strategy even though some of his players probably would like to spend more time on the court.
"We've got a real good group of kids," Azzam said. "We have a little bit of attitude problems, but it can't be that much because a lot are playing. They've all gotten their opportunities. I'm too old to worry about attitudes and egos.
"If they don't want to contribute to what we're doing as a team, they go away. This group wants to stick around and play. It's been fun."
It has been difficult for opponents to figure out who might be Westchester's top players, because no one, with the exception of senior guard Matthew Grant, is scoring in double figures on a consistent basis.
"Coach doesn't want us to get tired, so he says, 'Five in, five out,'" junior forward Nick Hamilton said. "People might want to play more, but they know at the end of the day we're winning."
The Comets' depth is their strength, and on a given night any number of players are capable of stepping forward to be a major contributor.
Grant has been Westchester's go-to player in big games. Junior Myles Stewart can score from three-point range. Senior Tyler Batiste is a point guard who stays cool and calm in pressure situations. Juniors Elijah Stewart and the 6-foot-7 Josh Rideau have come through with big offensive games. Senior Nick Reese is a 6-6 center who controls the boards. Junior Cameron Young is a 6-5 forward who has been a spark coming off the bench.
And then there's the 6-3 Hamilton. If you want to know how Westchester gave Southern Section powers Santa Ana Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly and Torrance Bishop Montgomery such a tough time before losing in close games, just watch Hamilton in action.
"Nick's a warrior," Azzam said. "He competes on every possession 100% of the time. That's so rare in high school and it's rare at any level, and it's fun to have. He makes mistakes, but he never makes mistakes going less than 100%."
In the classroom, Hamilton a hasn't received a grade other than A since he was in the fifth grade. He's so good at math that teammates come to him to be tutored.
His father, Mark, raised four boys as a single parent. He worked for 28 years as a postal worker and instilled in them the importance of education.
"He made sure everyone was studying every night, getting their homework done," Nick said. "When I got to high school, he said it isn't about him anymore, it's about me. If I wanted it, I have to get the grades."
Hamilton was a member of last year's 27-1 junior varsity team that learned how to play with many substitutions.
If Saturday night ends with a championship and getting to hold up a trophy, there won't be any complaints from Westchester players. It will be just like winning a Stanley Cup, which seems appropriate for a team with the substitute pattern of the NHL Kings.