Three years ago, new high school basketball coach Matt Garrison arrived at Desert Christian Academy, and he was like a sculptor working with a fresh ball of clay.
He had a healthy foundation of hard-working sophomores, he had an end goal in mind, and he started molding that clay. It started with early lumps and uneven patches, but slowly it started to take shape. Those sophomores became juniors and the project really started to come together as many of the rough spots were being smoothed out.
This year, as seniors, all that was left was some careful attention to detail, a few finishing touches, and now that lump of clay is one step away from becoming a masterpiece.
That finished product is a CIF-SS championship trophy, and the Conquerors can bring that home Saturday with a win in the Division 5A championship game against Sherman Indian (Riverside).
“Three years ago, we all came together and worked super hard since sophomore year, everybody’s bought in and invested,” said senior Ananias Bullock, who is part of a core group of seniors that includes Derick Rodriguez, Ben Roethler and Kelvin Wong. “We know we can win this game, we’ve just got to stay focused and not get distracted by the fans or anything like that. Everybody believed at the start of the season, and now the dream is coming true. We’ve just got to stick to it for one more game.”
That game happens at 2 p.m. Saturday at Godinez High School in Santa Ana.
Garrison has a unique approach to basketball and he admits the team took some lumps early in the process, but now those early days are paying off.
“It was kind of a gamble,” Garrison said. “We bit off a big chunk early. I’ve got a mindset and they bought into it, and it came together. It’s paying off now, and it’s all because of them.”
Put simply, Garrison doesn’t believe in position basketball. Center, point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, those are all dirty words to Garrison. He wants all five guys on the court to all be comfortable doing everything — dribble, pass, shoot and defend at the highest level they are capable of.
“My thing is how can you make each person the best complete basketball player they can be,” he said. “That way, when we’re outsized or other teams are quicker than us, we can switch on defense any position, and cause problems on offense. That’s really what it’s about.”
Put another way, instead of having your big guys in practice work only on post moves, and your guards work on dribbling and shooting, everybody works on everything. And it shows in games.
Big guys are shooting threes, short guys are taking it to the basket, everybody is adept at defending players bigger or smaller than them. They can play zone, man-to-man, and on offense there seems to always be someone in an advantageous position, because all five guys can shoot 3-pointers or take their man off the dribble.
It’s an exciting brand of basketball. The Conquerors get a lot of baskets early in the possession, because whoever gets the rebound can just start taking it the other way. Three-pointers, dunks, you’ll see it all in a Desert Christian Academy game, and though the seniors are the heart of the team, it doesn’t hurt to have uber-talented freshman Judah Brown coming off the bench. Despite his young age, Brown plays with a calm and poise and he can do it all with his lanky frame, play tight defense, hit mid-range jumpers, putback dunks, you name it.
So Garrison knows a lot about basketball, but when he arrived he didn’t know much about the other teams in the area. It led to some lopsided losses, but may be paying off now.
“When I got here, I was like ‘Oh, hey here’s a tournament in the valley, let’s get in it,’ ” he said. “Then there we are in the Rancho Mirage Tournament against Rancho Mirage and La Quinta and getting just hammered, I remember one game against La Quinta, I think we lost by about 50, but it could have been 100 if they didn’t ease up. People around here were like, ‘What are you doing? Their confidence is getting beaten down.’ I took a lot of flack for that first year.”
But knowing the internal makeup of his players, when that second year came around, he did the same thing again. They played in those same tough tournaments.
“Second year, I got into some of the same tournaments like Rancho Mirage and MaxPreps,” he said. “My thinking was this is the kind of level we want to play at. We just slowly took our lumps over the last three years in some really, really tough games, but emotionally these guys are tough. And all those lumps prepared us for a chance like this.”
Those first two years, the Conquerors went a combined 29-22, including an 0-9 mark against the bigger desert schools of the Desert Valley League and De Anza League.
This year’s Conquerors are 21-5 overall and went 4-2 against teams from the two larger desert leagues. They beat Shadow Hills, Xavier Prep, Yucca Valley and Desert Mirage, losing only to DVL champion La Quinta and the De Anza League’s Twentynine Palms, which is also playing for a CIF title Saturday.
“Coming into the season, we thought we had a chance to be a really good team,” said Rodriguez, who is the primary ball-handler for the Conquerors and recorded a rare quadruple-double earlier this season. “I get a little jitters thinking about Saturday’s game, and everybody in the school is pretty hyped about it.”
Garrison is such a thorough coach, he’s even got his guys prepared for this eventuality, as they shoot for the school’s first CIF-SS boys’ hoops title since 2009.
“Our guys are excited, and a lot of students are coming up to them just as excited,” Garrison said. “I told the guys to try not to meet (other students) at their emotional level. Just say thanks and keep on moving. Because if every time it happens, you say, ‘Yeah, it’s so awesome. It’s going to be great.’ You’re going to burn yourself out.”
WATCH THEM PLAY
Who: Desert Christian Academy (21-5) vs. Sherman Indian (22-5)
What: The Division 5A CIF-SS championship game
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Godinez High School — 3002 Centennial Rd, Santa Ana, CA 92704
Notable: DCA won a CIF-SS basketball title in 2009 … In the final Division 5A poll, DCA was ranked No. 3 and Sherman Indian No. 4. The Conquerors beat the No. 2-ranked team Apple Valley Christian in the semis, while Sherman Indian beat the No. 1 team Coast Union.