When Desert Christian Academy boys’ basketball coach Matt Garrison went to bed Friday night, he probably had a dream about Saturday’s CIF-SS Division 5A title game.
The dream included a bunch of 3-pointers, stingy defense, a raucous gym filled with every person with a tie to the school, an easy win, hoisting the championship plaque and to have it all be topped off with a 3-pointer from reserve Will Whitaker, the heart of the team.
Every once in a while, dreams become reality.
The Conquerors did all of those things and more Saturday afternoon at Godinez High School in an 82-47 victory over Sherman Indian (Riverside) for a nervousness-free title, joining the 2009 DCA team in earning that honor.
“Wow, I can’t believe that score,” Garrison said, looking up at the 35-point margin while the team took photos at center court holding the 2017 Division 5A Championship plaque.
The word validation was thrown around after the game, as the title validated all the hard work, the lopsided losses and the growing pains this team suffered in the three years since Garrison took over the program with a bunch of eager sophomores.
Senior Derick Rodriguez, who scored 15 points with nine assists and eight rebounds, summed up the impact of this title nicely.
“This took three years in the making,” he said. “Three years ago, nobody knew who DCA was, and after this game, everyone is going to know who we are. This game helped change DCA basketball culture. It showed we’re not just a bunch of small Christian guys who think they can play. We can actually play. We just proved it.”
Senior Ben Roethler took it a step further.
“These last three years, nobody would have thought we would be where we are now back then,” he said. “We were getting killed back then and to think of how, well, how bad we were then to where we are now, it’s incredible, that’s all I can say. And to do it all with these guys, it’s the best feeling.”
READ MORE: DCA reserve is the heart of the Conquerors
The Conquerors pulled away late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter and never relinquished control of Saturday’s game. With a narrow 15-14 lead, Rodriguez sparked a key run that gave the Conquerors separation from the Braves. And he did it on both ends of the court.
He hit a 3-pointer to start the surge, then had a steal on the next defensive possession, which he took the length of the floor and dished to Ananias Bullock for a 3-point play. Rodriguez followed that up with a drawn charge on the ensuing defensive possession, and Bullock scored again. That was all part of a 9-2 run to finish the quarter with DCA on top 24-16.
“To me I look at the charge that Derick drew as the game-changing moment,” Garrison said. “Sherman was attacking, they were putting some buckets together, and that charge stopped that run. He lays out and lays his body on the line and that changed the composure of the game. A lot of times a two-minute stretch somewhere in the game is the difference-maker and that came early for us in this one.”
A 21-9 second-quarter effectively put the game away and the Conquerors were getting contributions from everyone. Rodriguez opened the quarter with a 3-pointer, junior Zachary Devane followed that with a 3-pointer of his own, and freshman sensation Judah Brown found himself alone for a dunk as the lead ballooned to 32-18 quickly. Later in the quarter, Bullock, who finished the game 9 of 12 for a team-high 19 points, scored a bucket and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but Austin Shaver got the rebound and put it back in. That four-point swing gave the Conquerors a 43-23 lead, and it was never in doubt after that.
Despite the lopsided score, the third and fourth quarters had two specific memorable moments, for two of the other seniors from the core group that has been toiling toward a title for three years.
In the third quarter, Kelvin Wong caught fire. He hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and on the next possession got a long pass ahead to him which he caught, dribbled inside the 3-point arc, reversed course, stepped back for another 3-pointer and drained it. Sherman Indian called a timeout, the Conquerors’ crowd was going crazy and the score went from 66-41 to 75-41 in an instant.
“Yeah, that felt good, I can’t lie,” Wong said. “My teammates trusted me and I just started stroking it there. Then they called timeout and I was like ‘Get it to me again.’ And I got it and, of course, I missed but it’s all good. Winning a championship, oh man, I’m basically speechless.”
The only thing left in the fourth quarter was to find out the final score, and to see if super-reserve Will Whitaker could get a basket. If you don’t follow DCA basketball, Whitaker or “Will the Thrill” as the crowd loves to chant, is the heart and soul of the team. Not blessed with all the hoops skill in the world, Whitaker has worked hard and stayed with it for all three years. When he comes in and scores a basket, it means more to his teammates and the crowd than it does to him.
So in the final two minutes of the game, the goal was to send the senior off with a basket. His first shot was wide left. His second was on target but short. Rodriguez, who had been taken out of the game, asked to go back in to try to help facilitate a basket for Whitaker. Sure enough with 21 seconds left, Rodriguez drove into the paint, sent a bounce pass back out to Whitaker at the top of the key, he let one of his patented high-arching shots fly and … swish.
The perfect ending to a dream season.
“I just felt like it was going in, and it was awesome,” Whitaker said. “Especially in a championship game with the crowd and everything.”
Rodriguez said it was the greatest assist he’ll ever have.
“That was the assist I really wanted, I mean, you can’t write this stuff, so perfect,” he said.
Bullock finished the game with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Wong hit 4 of 7 3-pointers on his way to 14 points and Brown added 11 points. The team made 12 of 27 3-pointers, which was a big difference in the game, as Sherman Indian went only 3 for 21.
The Braves (22-6) were led by Gus Running Horse with 14 points and Kobe White Eagle with 13.
Desert Christian Academy (22-5) does get to keep playing. They’ll be part of the state regional which begins Wednesday. They’ll learn their opponent and the site of the game Sunday.
With the final word on this championship season, Bullock explained what it means to this senior group that includes Rodriguez, Roethler, Wong, Cooper Smith, Whitaker and Seth Kint.
“You come to high school, and you’re thinking first I have to get my spot on the team, then become a key contributor,” he said. “Once you get that, we’re going to see if we can win a league championship. We didn’t do it sophomore year, but junior we came back and got it. Then all the hard work we put in over the summer. You start thinking ‘Why can’t we go all the way? We have the talent, we have the coaching. We have the school behind us, there’s no reason we can’t come and win it all.’ Then you just have to stay locked in every single day and stay focused. That’s how we did it. We’re a family. And now we’re champions.”
DESERT CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 82, SHERMAN INDIAN 47
DES. CHRISTIAN (82)
(FG FT-FTA-TP) Bullock 9 1-4 19, Wong 5 0-0 14, Smith 2 0-0 6, Rodriguez 5 3-5 15, Roethler 2 0-0 4, Whitaker 1 0-0 3, E. Brown 0 0-0 0, J Brown 5 0-0 11, Kint 2 0-0 5, Devane 1 0-0 3, Shaver 1 0-0 2. Totals 33 4-9 82.
SHERMAN INDIAN (47)
(FG-FT-FTA-TP) Frye 3 2-2 8, White Eagle 6 0-0 13, Franco 2 0-0 6, Running Horse 6 2-3 14, Dewey 3 0-0 6, Plenty 0 0-2 0, Shotgun 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 4-7 47..
3-Point Goals— Desert Christian – 12 (Wong 4, Smith 2, Rodriguez 2, Whitaker 1, J Brown 1, Kint 1, Devane 2), Sherman Indian – 3 (Franco 2, White Eagle 1), Fouled Out— None.